Sara Paretsky

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Jane S. Bakerman (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: “Living ‘Openly and With Dignity’—Sara Paretsky's New-Boiled Feminist Fiction,” in MidAmerica XII: The Yearbook of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature, edited by David D. Anderson, The Midwestern Press, 1985, pp. 120-35.

[In the following essay, Bakerman traces how Paretsky redefines the genre of hard-boiled detective fiction to include a strong, independent female protagonist.]

Gumshoe. Shamus. Hawkshaw. Dick. Peeper. Snooper. Sleuth. No matter what he is called, the hard-boiled detective, or private eye, is an American institution, as native as jazz, as recognizable as Mickey Mouse, as appealing as apple pie, as durable as the game of baseball. Cloaked in many disguises … he has become one of the most familiar figures in American cultural mythology.

(Geherin, 1)

Twenty dollars per hour—sixteen if you're a family member—hires one of the best private investigators in the business: V. I. Warshawski, the hard-boiled hero created by Sara Paretsky. Warshawski, prime example of an important new guise for the private-eye, is a woman who discusses feminist issues and lives by feminist principles while engaging in a profession which, like the larger society she inhabits, is dominated by men. Her cases to date have been detailed in three superior crime novels, Indemnity Only (1982), Deadlock (1984), Killing Orders (1985), and a short story, “Three-Dot Po.”

With more and more female authors seeking to define new roles for women, it is, perhaps, not surprising that Sara Paretsky is but one of a number (such as Sue Grafton, Marcia Biederman, Marcia Muller and Martha G. Webb in the United States; P. D. James and Liza Cody in England) who embrace the hard-boiled detective novel as a means of making useful statements about contemporary women's lives. Because Paretsky stands well forward among this distinguished company of innovative women writers, an examination of her work, which reveals both traditional and nontraditional elements, is useful in gaining new perspective upon an old literary formula.

In keeping with the hard-boiled tradition, Paretsky employs an urban setting, grounding V. I.'s fictional world in present-day Chicago, covering the South Loop, Lake Shore Drive, various suburbs, the waterfront, and current politics with equal perceptiveness. She acknowledges the blight which affects Chicago as it does most American cities:

The Eisenhower Expressway … looks like a prison exercise yard for most of its length. Run-down houses and faceless projects line the tops of the canyons on either side of its eight lanes. L. stations are planted along the median. The Eisenhower is always choked with traffic, even at three in the morning. At nine on a wet workday it was impossible.

But V. I. also expresses appreciation for her home town and its efforts at civic improvement, frequently combining it with characterization. She notes, for instance, that,

We pride ourselves in Chicago on our outdoor sculptures by famous artists. My favorite is the bronze wind chimes in front of the Standard Oil Building, but I have a secret fondness for Chagall's mosaics in front of the First National Bank. My artist friends tell me they are banal.

Like her contemporary, Robert B. Parker, whose Spenser series substitutes Boston for Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler's California, Paretsky exploits a geographic setting she knows thoroughly, and the City of the Big Shoulders serves her very well; the intricacies of city life (coping with rush-hour traffic, juggling relationships with antagonistic police officers, wondering when upwardly mobile hordes will invade her neighborhood) affords complication to her plots as it deepens the characterization of her protagonist. Above all, the city provides Paretsky's work, as it does that of most private-eye creators, with a useful metaphor...

(This entire section contains 5435 words.)

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for the debilitating tensions of twentieth-century life. In urban areas, these writers, “find empty modernity, corruption, and death. A gleaming and deceptive facade hides a world of exploitation and criminality … enchantment and significance must usually be sought elsewhere.”

Though Warshawski maintains that her specialty, financial crime, “doesn't often lead to violence,” her Chicago streets and expressways are plenty mean: business chicanery lends itself all too readily to murder and mayhem—beatings, arson, shootouts—and it also allows Paretsky to add a useful subsetting to her stories. The commercial misdealings which incite each plot—insurance fraud (Indemnity Only), sabotage and fee skimming among Great Lakes shippers (Deadlock), a counterfeit securities scam involving a Dominican priory (Killing Orders), and a photographer's assignment gone awry (“Po”)—are slightly reminiscent of Emma Lathen's amateur-detective series which mixes high finance with comedy and crime. But there is little humor in Paretsky's work which emphasizes very fast pace and action: she never allows the complexities of the criminal schemes to retard the flow of her story. Instead, she reveals the financial machinations with the same type of relatively brief but telling strokes as she portrays her locale, usually dramatizing them in conversations between dynamic, interesting experts in their fields.

Both geographical setting and illegal business manipulations enhance the sophisticated aura of Paretsky's gritty realism. Subordinating locale and scheme to action lends authority to V. I.'s first-person account of each adventure. Every character and every event are seen through Warshawski's eyes and measured by Warshawski's standards, a well-established, valuable technique of the hard-boiled subgenre:

The notionally “objective” style creates an illusion. It suggests the material presented has absolute value, but at the same time the persona's viewpoint is insistently stressed; his own evaluation of the material is … given a quasi-objective status, made valid by association.

(Knight, 140)

Though many of Warshawski's observations and evaluations are atypical, others are very typical; for instance, concentration on miscreants who seek enormous financial gain enables Paretsky and her protagonist to denounce those who worship money and the things money can buy or who covet the power that money allows its possessors. The corruptive force of such greed is often symbolized by the disintegration of families and by emotional neglect of children, devices which are also conventions of the hard-boiled school. However, as David Geherin has pointed out, innovation is also essential:

fourth-generation [hard-boiled] writers [among whom Paretsky numbers] well understand that the key to success is developing a unique approach, one that combines respectful adherence to the conventions of the genre with their own individual talents and fictional concerns.


One of the updating methods shared by Sara Paretsky and Robert B. Parker is the attention they pay to trends of the 80's; both their protagonists jog, dwell upon their tastes in clothing, and seem preoccupied with food. These simple but effective devices work equally well for both writers, demonstrating that the formula can be modernized without being violated.

Not many formulaic subgenres have been studied and analyzed so closely as has hard-boiled detective fiction. Most critics agree that the form began in the pages of Black Mask magazine, and that the hard-boiled dick traces his ancestry back through American cowboys and Natty Bumppo of Cooper's Leather-Stocking Tales, past Sir Walter Scott's heroes, and finally to the knights of medieval romance. The atmospheric elements of the formula “seems constant”: the shabbiness of the investigator's office, the references to alcohol, the city streets, the sleuth's willingness to risk police harassment, his suspiciousness, the necessity to absorb considerable physical punishment, the constant “sense of imminent violence” pervading his life, and the “tired beds” which offer little, if any, promise of long term sexual satisfaction.

Balancing such a detailed pattern with genuine innovation is no mean feat, and Paretsky is one of the best writers who manage this fictive juggling act. It is, perhaps, to her very great advantage in doing so that some of the qualities of the private eye—the tension which informs his life, continuing fear of being afraid, disjunction with the establishment as represented by conflict with the police, for example—recall factors in the lives of members of American minority groups as they have reported them. For actually, the traditional fictional private investigator is a member of a minority, one of the last surviving honorable folk in an increasingly corrupt and corruptive society. They engage in,

the solitary quest for justice, truth, individual integrity … noble activities which emerge time and again as the heroic theme of myth when civilizations begin to disintegrate and the existing social body no longer appears to nourish spiritual needs.

(Margolies, 84)

V. I. Warshawski belongs to this seedily distinguished, stubborn minority who stalk dangerous city streets and who prowl decadent suburbs, attempting to defeat criminals who attack society from outside its borders and to thwart corrupt, lazy, or incompetent lawmen who leech from within.

Even more importantly, Paretsky's hero understands minority thinking in yet another way, for as a liberated woman, V. I. Warshawski is well aware that she must constantly defend her independence. Thus, the traditional private investigator's disenchantment with the establishment, the P. I.'s insistence upon his concept of integrity, the gumshoe's distrust of all who reflect her professional attitude. Elements of this mystery subgenre and matching patterns in fiction written by women indicate that the hard-boiled subgenre and feminist fiction are amazingly well suited for one another.

Margolies says of hard-boiled detectives:

given their distrust of organized society and given the absence of social institutions to guide their behavior outside of organized society, the protagonists … have had to create for themselves in little godlike ways their own code of ethics, their own morality. This may in part account for the reasons … the hard-boiled dicks … blithely ignore society's laws about the sanctity of property, due process, assault and battery and other forms of violence.


This comment compares closely with Annis Pratt's assessment of the status of many female heroes:

The greater the personal development of a hero, the more true she is to herself and the more eccentric her relationship to the patriarchy. A quality of consciousness that is essentially antisocial characterizes the most admirable heroes.


To a remarkably great degree, in fact, the situation of the male hard-boiled hero resembles the situations of many, many female protagonists who appear throughout the whole range of fiction. By simply changing the pronouns, for instance, this description of the female hero could readily fit most hard-boiled male private-eyes:

Every element of her desired world—freedom to come and go, allegiance to nature, meaningful work, exercise of the intellect, and use of her own erotic capabilities—inevitably clashes with the patriarchal norms. Attempts to develop independence are met with limitation and immurement, training in menial and frustrating tasks, restrictions of the intellect … limitation of erotic activity. The collision between the hero's evolving self and society's imposed identity appears consistently throughout the history of women's fiction—

(Pratt, 29)

almost exactly as it appears in the “male” fiction of the hard-boiled school.

No one is called such belittling names as “Peeper” or “Snooper” if he or his work is truly valued by society, and the traditional private-eye is keenly aware that no matter how nobly he clings to his code of honor, he is all too often perceived as a cheap shamus spying on one marital partner at the behest of the other, an image which is as dated as it is unsavory. It's more comfortable for society to perceive Lew Archer, Spenser—and V. I. Warshawski, for that matter—in this way; to accept them as exemplary figures would force a reevaluation of personal and social codes, would call for nobler behavior from individual and system alike, and the investigators understand this reaction very well. In an attempt to evade the social responsibility adherence to the private investigator's code would require, society refuses to acknowledge that these characters have dignity. Male hard-boiled protagonists seem to accept that fact as one of the trials they must undergo, reflecting society's assessment in their uncomfortable apartments, dingy offices, and arid personal lives.

Female operatives are aware of the disapprobation directed toward their calling and further understand that “Patriarchy requires that any conceptualization of the world in which men and their power are a central problem should become invisible” (Spender, 7). Hence, it is no surprise to Vic Warshawski that members of her family seek her out only in moments of crisis or that some clients doubt her capability; in her situation, society's distrust is simply carried to a more pronounced extreme.

Clearly, then, the traditional male private-eye shares a number of characteristics with female heroes, despite the widely accepted dogma that the hard-boiled formula is distasteful to women. Stephen Knight suggests that Chandler's lack of female audience may stem from, “The nervous masculinity woven deeply into the persona's feelings” (163) and, indeed, this pattern, which often reveals itself through profoundly bitter misogyny, disaffects some female readers. Certainly, Paretsky intended from the outset to give close attention to her protagonist's confidence in her own femaleness:

“I was determined to write a hard-boiled sleuth who was both a woman and a complete professional, someone who could operate successfully in a tough milieu and not lose her femininity.”

(Stasio, 39)

Other women, for instance feminist critic Kathi Maio, who raised the question during the 1984 Bouchercon (an annual meeting of mystery writers, fans, and critics), may object equally to the extreme violence inherent to hard-boiled fiction. Paretsky is aware of this criticism and reports that,

she felt compelled to follow all the standard genre conventions in her first novel, allowing V. I. to engage in more physical violence than the author felt comfortable with. “I've now developed enough self-confidence to see that I can do it my own way … Women are not interested in homoerotic sadism in the way that men are. I don't feel that my readers need to learn how to fight any more than they need to learn how to have intercourse. So I just don't go in for detailed descriptions of sex and violence anymore. V. I. sometimes beats up people, but now I make it a point that she never kills anyone.”

(Stasio, 39)

But Margaret Millar, dean of American women crime writers, does not perceive violence as either surprising or, possibly, inappropriate in women's fiction; she says it reflects women's accumulated anger:

“I think that women are actually more violent than men … when people are oppressed—and let's face it, women have been oppressed for years—and then suddenly express their feelings, they tend to do so in a much more explosive fashion. It's like a pressure cooker going off.”

(Stasio, 40)

Following Millar's line of thought, it is fairly easy to discover that the violence which occurs in hard-boiled novels functions not only as an indication of social decay but also as a warning—even decent people will resort to abusive behavior if their frustrations with the dominant society become too acute.

Intermittently, V. I. Warshawski's behavior illustrates both these usages. Early on, she reports that, “My fingers itched to bring out the Smith & Wesson and pistol-whip” an arrogant, bullying man who assumes that wealth and position grant him dominance over women and children. Even in Paretsky's third novel, Killing Orders, wherein violence has supposedly been diluted, V. I. comes very close to losing control, though here, her motivations are even stronger, perhaps more understandable. After facing down and intimidating an assassin, she reports,

I stood back to let the officials take over. I was dizzy and close to fainting myself. Fatigue. Nausea at the depths of my own rage. How like a mobster I had behaved—torture, threats. I don't believe the end justifies the means. I'd just been plain raving angry.


Yet, despite her disgust with her own behavior, only a couple of days later, Vic is again at the mercy of “red rage swirling through my head. … ‘He tried to blind me. … He tried to burn me to death. He probably killed Agnes. You should have let me kill him.’” Obviously, the stuff of hard-boiled fiction is brutality, no matter by whose hand it's written. The debatable point is the worth of that material.

Unquestionably, the violence endemic to mean-streets fiction is repellent, but nevertheless, it is effective because readers respond to its value as a symbol and also as an assessment. They recognize it as a part of the modern scene as Raymond Chandler long since pointed out:

The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities … where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practicing. …

It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting … patterns out of it.

To the traditional male private sleuth, each important case is a means of proving that he adheres to his principles despite the prevalent decay of standards. He believes passionately (if also often sardonically) that a valid code of honor is the only antidote to evil. In defending society, then, he also defends his spiritual well-being and reaffirms his manhood. To do this, he must suffer; to do this, he must punish—the violence offers a means of doing both. By surviving that violence, he proves his code and his cause to be just. Because the male private eye sees himself as the last hope of decency in a declining civilization, his sense of isolation (dramatized by his lack of much trustworthy support, his single state—he is usually divorced—and his everlasting battle to force both criminal and establishment to conform to his code of honor) is intense. His rebellion against society crystallizes into efforts to make society reflect its better rather than its more horrific self.

By the fact of their maleness, however, the isolation of typical hard-boiled male heroes is mitigated to a significant degree. Though they are not widely respected members of “the system,” they are obviously members of the male power structure. Their toughness, emotional control, stubbornness, endurance, sexual prowess (implied or detailed), imperviousness to derision, even their misogyny, are all traits of the macho figure so widely accepted as a model of American male behavior. Would they but dress for success and stop pondering civil decay, they could slip into the mainstream.

Furthermore, hard-boiled protagonists enact patriarchal roles. As they ferret out misdeeds and miscreants, they correct error and chastise wrongdoers who are evil because they willfully decline to behave as genuine adults. Refusing to accept and discharge social responsibility, criminals engage instead in disastrously childish behavior; they take what they want simply because they want it, no matter who gets hurt.

The investigator behaves as a stern father who temporarily replaces social disorder with propriety by punishing these criminally disobedient and dangerous perpetual children. Other members of society both welcome and dread this paternal behavior—they recognize its necessity, are glad for the relief it affords, but perceive and are discomforted by the implication that truly mature people should be able to associate without the intervention of a father figure. Moreover, they fear, perhaps unreasonably, perhaps not, that a punishing parental hand might fall—by accident or by design—upon them. Society's mixed feelings toward the investigator, then, closely parallel children's feelings toward a strict parent.

This emotional response also works in favor of the male hard-boiled private-eye. Simply because of his sex, he benefits from society's acceptance of the patriarchy—stern, punitive roles are acceptable male roles, according to the received wisdom—so that he seems to be of the patriarchy even though he operates in isolation, well outside the system.

How much greater is the potential for isolation of female fictional private detectives who fight the establishment not only as representatives of decency but also as rebels against its patriarchal norms. No matter how well experience teaches that mothers as well as fathers must be disciplinarians, leftover myths of the 1950s continue to form society's perceptions of motherhood in which smiling faces and soft, cajoling voices still predominate. V. I. Warshawski runs counter to that presumed model; like Spenser, Marlowe, and Spade, she persists in imposing social order by identifying and punishing criminals, and her sex offers her no patriarchal ratification for her professional activity. Like the other trends of the 80s which Paretsky so faithfully records, this one also, regrettably, rings true, and V. I. Warshawski can expect even less approval of her efforts than her male colleagues anticipate. If V. I. wishes to serve society, it is thought, she should remarry, move to the suburbs, and produce children; her sex supposedly bars her from actively parenting society at large.

Because she resists the patriarchy, the violence in her stories serves the female hard-boiled operative on even more symbolic levels than it serves her male counterparts; taking risks allows her to reaffirm her equality and independence as she reaffirms her code and her right to act according to her code. By absorbing and by meting out punishment, V. I. Warshawski does not prove that she is “one of the boys,” but she does prove that despite the almost overwhelming frustration inherent in her life, she is a functioning, capable, assertive adult; she remains visible. That she is able to do so, even in an aura of violence, is found by many readers to be much to her credit.

Paretsky moves readers toward acceptance of violence by inverting some traditional techniques. Vic is openly scornful of herself when she slips into stereotypical P. I. behavior—“Why be so full of female-chismo and yell challenges into the phone? I ought to write ‘Think before acting’ a hundred times on the blackboard.” Also, Paretsky allows Vic ample awareness of her own vulnerability, often coupling it with ironic comments about other fictional private-eyes' attitudes: “Of course, a hard-boiled detective is never scared. So what I was feeling couldn't be fear. Perhaps nervous excitement at the treats in store for me.” V. I. is sensible enough to be afraid, mature enough to admit it to herself, but too wily to reveal it to her opponents—

I have always feared death by drowning more than any other end—the dark water sucking me down into itself. My hands were trembling slightly. I pressed them to the sides of my legs so that Grafalk couldn't see.

These moments create a realism in Paretsky's fiction that the conventional, adolescent bravado of most male investigators precludes, no matter how vividly their authors portray the littered pavements, glittering-eyed addicts, or gun-toting hoods of the mean streets they roam.

In Paretsky's fiction, then, the formulaic anger and consequent violence basic to the subgenre augments the realistic tone, extends to permit open expression of women's fury as opposed to the encoded belligerence characteristic of other fictional women, and dramatizes the protagonist's full adulthood. Unsavory though they be, these are very workable devices. Moreover, this treatment allows Paretsky to set violence in a different light; it is no longer a given, the right of the rebellious, isolated, angry hero, but rather sometimes a necessity into which V. I. is forced, sometimes a reflexive response triggered by danger and abuse.

This rather altered view toward violence unites with other qualities in Paretsky's work to identify it as part of a new wave of hard-boiled fiction. Geherin suggests that during the last decade, a softer strain appears in some male hard-boiled sleuths, who are

distinguished by such traits as compassion, pity, empathy, ethical sensitivity, and self-reflection. … the hard-boiled hero has undergone a significant transformation, and when one reviews the half century of his existence … he becomes more complex, more humanized, and more vulnerable.

Paretsky, however, extends the boundaries of this variation just as she redefines older conventions of the subgenre. To do so, she uses one of its most well-established devices, the voice of the first-person narrator. V. I. not only freely admits fear and measures the various levels of rage to which she succumbs but also discusses the attractions and costs of her chosen life-style and of her profession much more openly than other fictional operatives, who if they address these questions at all, generally address them obliquely. Most male private-eyes, for example, suggest by implication and attitude that women's inability to understand the arduous demands of their work limits their chances for viable relationships. Vic believes, on the other hand, that she, once married and now divorced, remains single because she's “'too independent … with men, it always seems, or often seems, as though I'm having to fight to maintain who I am.’” Warshawski numbers herself among “‘grown women. We make our own mistakes. No one else has to take responsibility for them.’”

In the same self-assessing vein, V. I. says about her work, “'I guess the payoff is you get to be your own boss,’” but she goes on to explain that her keen sense of social responsibility enhances the value of investigation for her, just as it forced the abandonment of an earlier job with,

“the Chicago public defender's office. Either we had to defend maniacs who ought to have been behind bars … or we had poor chumps who were caught in the system and couldn't buy their way out. You'd leave court every day feeling as though you'd just helped worsen the situation. As a detective, if I can get at the truth of a problem, I feel as though I've made some contribution.”

Certainly, getting “at the truth of the problem” suggests worthwhile gain, but nevertheless, Warshawski sometimes needs reassurance that the price of truth is not too high. Near the conclusion of Killing Orders, for instance, Vic has not only solved the immediate crime but has also discovered several painful secrets buried in her family history and endangered a relationship she cherishes. Seeing herself as Iphigenia, doomed to faulty, tragic choices, she cries out:

“Lotty. Lotty, I have been so alone this winter. Do you know the torment I have been through? Agnes died because I involved her in my machinations. Her mother had a stroke. My aunt has gone mad. And all because I chose to be narrow-minded, pigheaded, bullying my way down a road the FBI and the SEC couldn't travel.”

Though other investigators recognize that their work hurts even as it helps individuals and society, few are so forthright in saying so, and almost none ever says so directly to another character. In allowing Vic Warshawski to voice her doubts and to seek reassurance from another, Paretsky departs markedly but very enrichingly from the macho code of silent suffering to which most private-eyes subscribe and which substitutes in their value systems for recognition by society. Vic neither has nor needs a stereotypical masculine image to uphold as do all male and even most female private eyes. Instead, she has a fairly clear knowledge of who Vic Warshawski is and of what kind of person she wishes to become; readers share that knowledge.

Emancipating Warshawski from the code of silence deepens Paretsky's novels considerably. Readers know how Vic perceives herself as fully as they know the process of deduction she follows, so that Paretsky achieves empathy between protagonist and readers, a fairly rare development in crime fiction where sympathy or identification-by-fantasy is usually the most one can hope for. Thus, Vic's occasional self-doubt seems not only acceptable but also proper—if she is going to parent society, she had better evaluate her methods and achievements lest she become an autocratic parent-figure, repeating the same lessons and punishments until they become hollow and meaningless.

This is a danger, of course, in series fiction which closely follows a formula—too often, neither the pattern nor the protagonist alters much. As a rule, male private-eyes age but don't change significantly. For example, Lew Archer grows older and wearier, but never solves many of his own problems, and Spenser talks a lot about modifying his macho behavior but also recognizes that modeling himself upon the Hemingway hero is the only way of life that he knows or trusts. Willing to suffer, but steadfastly denying themselves the counsel of others, they are essentially static.

In contrast, Vic Warshawski regularly invokes three separate branches of her extended family against whom she measures both her professional and personal humanity—her surviving relatives, memories of her parents (now deceased), and her constructed family of friends and lovers. These are the associations which most clearly reveal V. I. as a developing character who, though she suffers as do all hard-boiled knights, grows and changes as a consequence.

Some of that growth is accomplished by rejection. Vic believes that her surviving relatives’ disapproval of her career and life-style is a sure sign that she is making proper choices, and readers, sharing her glimpses of repressive Warshawski-Wojcik-Vignelli lives, agree; these characters symbolize the establishment. As a functioning adult, V. I., one of the very few private investigators who mentions her childhood, is steadfast in her regard for her parents. She continues to love them despite their faults and errors, heeds their sound advice, and progresses beyond their unviable or outmoded strictures. Gabriella and Tony Warshawski represent the past which feminists must reevaluate and then assimilate or let go.

Warshawski strives for balance in relationships with her constructed family. Most of her lovers are also her good friends with whom she long sustains mutually satisfying alliances, behavior which is antithetical to that of most male private investigators. But her most powerful friendships are with women. Chief among them is Lotty Herschel, M. D., a Viennese refugee who runs “one of the cheapest clinics in the city … I often wondered what she lived on.” Without fanfare, Lotty, like Vic, makes her own choices and discharges the social responsibilities expected of genuinely mature people. Even more importantly, she offers Vic support and counsel unmarred by interference, and, when necessary, as in Killing Orders, Lotty is willing to reassess their friendship in order to strengthen it.

In Orders, Lotty and Vic imperil their relationship when each demands that the other violate her code. The resultant anger, symbolized by a cold Chicago winter, cannot be resolved until they confront—and discuss—the situation, a process almost unthinkable in most hard-boiled fiction. When Vic admits to guilt-laden grief about the suffering her investigation has uncovered, it is Lotty who helps restore perspective. Suffering is often the price of truth, the burden of the knight-detective—“‘They named you well, Victoria Iphigenia. For don't you know that in Greek legend Iphigenia is also Artemis the huntress?’”

Rarely has the private investigator's role as sacrifice, servant, and stalker been so succinctly codified as by merging her identities as some myths merge the identity of Iphigenia into that of the goddess. And perhaps never has the hard-boiled formula been so sharply altered. In this scene dramatically, in a host of others quietly but firmly, Paretsky banishes isolation from the life of her hero. Though, in keeping with tradition, V. I. Warshawski will continue to hunt alone, she need not be lonely: the viability of her constructed family ensures union, comfort, and support. These friends and lovers represent society as it should be, offering readers as much hope as they offer Vic.

In turn, Warshawski offers hope and promise to others by helping them to liberate themselves. V. I. insists that both she and the people she aids be allowed to live honorable, self-defined lives “‘openly and with dignity,’” a healthful form of nurture which demands independence rather than dependence of the nurtured. As she explains to a very young female client,

“you have to have your own sense of what's right built inside you. … Lots of things happen to you no matter what you do, or through no fault of your own. … But how you make those events part of your life is under your control. You can get bitter … or you can learn and grow from it.”

This attitude, which stresses the importance of the future and the opportunity for growth and maturation, implies a far more genuine reinstatement of personal and social well-being than that suggested in the traditional, “male” P. I. novels, wherein truth is uncovered but little social health is restored, yet another significant, progressive departure from hard-boiled conventions.

Throughout her work, then, Sara Paretsky has reformulated and reenergized an old literary pattern by recognizing the value of combining the hard-boiled detective novel with feminist fiction. She depicts her hero, V. I. Warshawski, as a fully adult woman conducting a balanced, self-defined life and succeeding in a profession thought of as a male domain. Paretsky's most sophisticated exploitation of the first-person narrator persuasively conveys the “absolute value” of V. I. Warshawski's life-choices and convictions “made valid by association” with her cadre of admirable friends and lovers.

By redefining that stereotypical “American institution,” the hard-boiled private-eye, Paretsky expands an important subgenre of popular fiction to include autonomous women. That alone is a major achievement—and she's only just begun.


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Sara Paretsky 1947-

American mystery writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Paretsky's career through 1995.

Paretsky is part of a school of female detective writers that subverts the genre of the hard-boiled detective novel to include a feminist perspective. By making Victoria Warshawski a strong, independent character, Paretsky breathes new life into the mystery genre, bringing feminist themes to what has traditionally been a field dominated by male writers. Unlike her male predecessors in the genre, such as Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler's detective Philip Marlowe, private-eye Warshawski also shows an emotional vulnerability that is not commonly evident in earlier detetive fiction. While Paretsky has created her own version of the typical mystery novel, her work retains many of the traditional mystery conventions, including fast-paced narratives and suspenseful plots.

Biographical Information

Paretsky was born on June 8, 1947, in Ames, Iowa, to David Paretsky and Mary Edwards. Paretsky attended the University of Kansas, where she received her B.A. in 1967. She received both her M.B.A. and her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1967 and 1977, respectively. Paretsky remained in Chicago after earning her degrees, and the city has figured prominently in her detective novels. Paretsky worked as a freelance business writer and later as a marketing manager for a major insurance company before turning to mystery writing full time. She has published novels since the early 1980s when an editor at Dial Press took notice of her work. Paretsky was one of the founding members of Sisters in Crime, a group dedicated to furthering the careers of women in the mystery field, and served as its first president in 1986. She won an award from the Friends of American Writers for Deadlock (1984) in 1985 and was named one of the Women of the Year by Ms. magazine in 1987. In 1988 she won a Silver Dagger Award from the Crime Writers Association for Blood Shot (1988).

Major Works

All Paretsky's novels focus on the same protagonist, private detective Victoria Iphegenia (V. I.) Warshawski. Paretsky's works contain many of the elements of the traditional hard-boiled detective genre: a lone, street-smart detective who works in an urban setting and battles corruption by identifying and punishing transgressors of the law. However, Paretsky also subverts the genre by providing her heroine with a community of supporters. Warshawski is an orphan, but she has an extensive network of friends and neighbors which provides her with emotional support. In Indemnity Only (1982) Warshawski is hired to find a missing University of Chicago student. During her search, she finds her client's son murdered and uncovers a scheme involving a gangster, a union leader, and an insurance agency. Many of Paretsky's novels center around murders which are connected to white-collar crimes: in Deadlock she discovers the seedy side of the shipping business while investigating her cousin's death; in Killing Orders (1985) she investigates stock certificate fraud at a priory which eventually implicates criminal activity between a major corporation, the Catholic Church, and organized crime bosses. In Bitter Medicine (1987) she investigates medical malpractice at a hospital; and in Blood Shot Warshawski discovers a chemical company working in collusion with the mob to pollute natural resources in order to exploit energy needs. Although these crimes are fundamentally white-collar in nature, Warshawski often faces grave physical danger. In Killing Orders, an attacker tries to throw acid in her face and attempts to burn down her apartment. Despite such harrowing episodes, Paretsky has made it a goal to avoid unnecessary violence in her novels, and Warshawski rarely kills her adversaries. In Tunnel Vision (1994), Paretsky moves her central character in several different directions. Warshawski begins to investigate the reasons behind the elimination of a city-funded low-cost housing project for single mothers and eventually uncovers instances of child and spousal abuse, illegal immigration and slave labor, money laundering, computer hacking, and murder.

Critical Reception

Reviewers praise Paretsky's portrayal of Warshawski, noting the detective's physical and emotional strength. Many feminist critics laud Paretsky for not sacrificing Warshawski's femininity in order to make her tough. An important feature that reviewers often discuss is Paretsky's reworking of the genre of the hard-boiled detective novel. Jane S. Bakerman states that, “Throughout her work … Sara Paretsky has reformulated and reenergized an old literary pattern by recognizing the value of combining the hard-boiled detective novel with feminist fiction.” There is also consensus among critics regarding Paretsky's well-paced narratives. Mary A. Lowry calls Paretsky's writing “confident and sure.” More recently, however, reviewers complain that Paretsky's social messages are getting in the way of her plots. In his discussion of Tunnel Vision, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt asserts, “What doesn't work so well is the way Ms. Paretsky tries to play on our presumed sympathy for the poor and oppressed, and on our hostility to the rich and powerful.” Despite these objections, most commentators acknowledge Paretsky's unwavering tone, her deft characterizations, and the appeal of tightly plotted stories that conclude with satisfying endings.

Richard E. Goodkin (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: “Killing Order(s): Iphigenia and the Detection of Tragic Intertextuality,” in Yale French Studies Autour de Racine: Studies in Intertextuality, Yale University, 1989, pp. 81-107.

[In the following essay, Goodkin discusses the role of the Iphegenia myth in Paretsky's Killing Orders.]


One of the recurring motifs in the current awakening of critical interest in detective fiction has been the parallels between the detective novel and tragedy. Shoshana Felman calls Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus “the classical analytic detective story,” and points out that a number of critics have approached the Oedipus from the perspective of the detective story. Equally important for our purposes here are those critics who, while recognizing the similarities between tragedy and detective fiction, oppose the two. Dennis Porter contrasts “mythic crime” such as is found in Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, or Racine with the sort of “profane crime encountered on country highways and city streets” that characterizes detective stories, and David I. Grossvogel points out that the “mystery” in tragedy is essentially unresolvable:

[At the end of the Oedipus Tyrannus], when the truth so doggedly sought is finally understood in the fullness of its perfect circularity, there remain just as many oracles to decipher as before. Oedipus learns to displace limits in order to learn about the permanency of limits.

The detective story does not propose to be “real”: it proposes only, and as a game, that the mystery is located on this side of the unknown. It replaces the awesomeness of limits by a false beard—a mask that is only superficially menacing and can be removed in due time. It redefines mystery by counterstating it, by assuming that mystery can be overcome, it allows the reader to play at being a god with no resonance. …

Here is, it would appear, the limiting factor in any mutual consideration of tragedy and detective fiction: while tragedy tells us that even the “solutions” of its enigmas retain an inextricable element of mystery, the premise of detective fiction is that we—or at least someone, presumably the detective—can get to the bottom of things, can solve the mystery and come up with simple answers to the questions it poses. Thus at the end of Agatha Christie's Mysterious Affair at Styles, as Grossvogel puts it:

The lovers are reunited, the upper-middle-class ritual is once again resumed. Law, order, and property are secure, and, in a universe that is forever threatening to escape from our rational grasp, a single little man with a maniacal penchant for neatness leaves us all the gift of a tidy world, a closed book in which all questions have been answered.

Marjorie Nicolson sums up this “neatness” of the end of the mystery story: “detective stories are experienced as reassuring because they project the image of a cosmos subject to the operations of familiar laws.”

Thus, as we begin an intertextual reading which will link detective fiction and tragedy, we find ourselves dealing with two genres which might be opposed to each other as the simple (detective story) is opposed to the complex (tragedy), or as order is opposed to disorder. In fact this movement toward simplification and toward a reaffirmation of order in detective fiction appears to provide an implicit model for the theory of intertextuality itself; critics such as Michael Riffaterre make that branch of literary criticism into a sort of detective-like pursuit in which the text offers clues to the reader:

The task of interpretation is … not to avoid … errors, since they are a part of or stage in the reading process; they are a moment in the reader's perception of the work of art. He must pass through this stage before finally arriving at a complete decoding, the one fit to be stabilized. Yet the reader may not notice he has hit the jackpot—or rather, he may notice it without necessarily realizing it is the jackpot.

What Riffaterre calls “agrammaticalities” are essentially clues, incongruities which, like the best and subtlest clues in a good detective novel, almost pass unnoticed, but which, once we have seen them for what they are, point the way to a reinterpretation, so that the anomaly that originally drew our attention is resolved. Looking for the intertext thus becomes a kind of search for the solution to the mystery in a crime novel: when Riffaterre uncovers the intertext of an untitled poem of Rimbaud, for example, he cries: “And there it is: we have fingered the culprit.”

If we recall the opposition between detective fiction and tragedy as one between the simple and the complex, Riffaterre would seem to be making of intertextuality a process of simplification or resolution, a solving of the mystery of the text which leads to a reaffirmation of its “decidability.” What I would like to propose here is a definition of intertextuality not simply as a process of detection, but also as a process which is profoundly consonant with tragedy; not only as a simplification or even a clarification, but also as a complication; in short, a process which begins as a transformation of apparent disorder into underlying order, but ultimately becomes a recognition of the nature (and limitations) of any order, a realization that is fundamentally tragic.

In this article I will be examining the intertextual links between Racine's Iphigénie and a recent detective novel, Sara Paretsky's Killing Orders (1985), which ends with the revelation that the middle name of the novel's main character, a female private investigator, is Iphigenia. This identification, which grounds our intertextual reading, raises a number of complex issues, as we shall see, but perhaps the most immediate of these is a question worthy of a private eye: which Iphigenia? Does the novel's use of the Iphigenia myth necessarily allow us to consider it in relation to Racine's version of the myth? Paretsky's private-eye spends much of the novel living on Racine Avenue in Chicago, first in a rooming house “on Racine and Montrose” to which she moves after her apartment is destroyed by fire, and then in “a co-op on Racine near Lincoln” which she buys. But in fact Sara Paretsky informs me that she has never read Racine's Iphigénie: if our aim is to explore the relations between Killing Orders and Iphigénie, that fact alone forces us to frame this intertextuality in terms more complicated than a straightforward detection.

This absence of a direct link between the two texts actually covers over a complex series of indirect ones. Paretsky tells me that she is familiar with several other versions of the Iphigenia myth, those of Euripides and Gluck, and Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis is itself an extremely important model for Racine's play. I will be establishing the intertextual relation between Iphigénie and Killing Orders not simply on the basis of a shared source, but rather on the basis of a shared reading: my premise here is that both Racine's Iphigénie and Killing Orders are (among other things) readings of Euripides’ play, and that we, in turn, can learn something about all three works in question—and about the workings of intertextuality—by reading the two readings together. It will be as hard for us to “move” from Killing Orders to Racine as it is for Paretsky's heroine to move to Racine Avenue (she does so only after her home is destroyed), and we will “get to Racine” only by the establishment of a triple relation: first between Killing Orders and Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, then between Iphigenia in Aulis and Racine's Iphigénie, and finally (and indirectly), between Iphigénie and Killing Orders.


Let us start by sketching out a number of issues raised by Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis which will be essential to our analysis of Killing Orders. Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis is a play about order, or rather about two orders: a familial order and a heroic order which is meant to protect or insure it. The origin of the Trojan expedition, undoubtedly the single greatest source of heroism in all of ancient Greek literature, is in fact a kind of rudimentary insurance policy: the expedition stems from the Achaian oath by the terms of which each of Helen's suitors promises to support whatever husband is selected for her by protecting his household against any would-be interloper once the couple is married. When Helen is abducted by Paris, Menelaos cashes in his insurance policy by asking his brother Agamemnon to gather the Achaians at Aulis with the idea of setting sail for Troy and bringing Helen back to her home and family.

If the Achaians were allowed to leave Aulis without further ado, they would thus be doing so under the unchallenged illusion that the heroic order simply supported the familial order. When the goddess Artemis demands the sacrifice of Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia if the Greeks are to get their wind for Troy, she is trying to tell them (even if they don't necessarily understand her) about the nature of that illusion. She is telling them that even if this heroic order—this gathering of heroes which at the beginning of the Iliad becomes a pure ordering, a veritable taxonomy—starts out as a means of protection for the family order, it will ultimately attack that order, as is abundantly clear in the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the numerous plays dealing with the aftermath of the war (e.g., Euripides’ Andromache,Hecuba, and Trojan Women; Aeschylus's Oresteia trilogy; Sophocles’ Electra). The oracle demanding the sacrifice of Iphigenia is thus a lesson which states that in order to initiate the heroic order (raise the winds for Troy), the leader of the Achaian forces must be willing to attack the familial order; that heroism does not ultimately provide a support for the familial order, but rather is a reaction against it. The sacrifice of Iphigenia, the precondition of the war, is nothing but a preenactment of the fundamental undermining of the family order which will come to be synonymous with the Trojan War. The goal of the drama is to make Agamemnon accept the need for the sacrifice, to transform the loving father, however unhappy he might be about killing his eldest daughter, into a pedocide.

It is therefore absolutely essential that by the end of Euripides’ drama both Agamemnon and Iphigenia accept the need for the sacrifice. If Artemis substitutes a deer for Iphigenia at the end of the tragedy, thus saving the human sacrificial victim, this does not mean that the sacrifice is not necessary, but rather that it has in some sense already taken place once Iphigenia's and Agamemnon's acceptance of the oracle has broken the continuity between the generations by destroying the trusting relation of father and daughter. The sacrifice can be “called off” because accepting its terms means establishing the adversative relationship linking the familial order and the heroic order. Thus it would not be an exaggeration to give to Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis the subtitle Killing Orders, for the play is based not only on an order to kill (Iphigenia), but also on one order “killing” another, the heroic order ultimately establishing its hegemony over the familial order.


As we now turn to the detective novel Killing Orders, let us first give a rather detailed synopsis of the novel's complex events. Chicago private eye V. I. Warshawski is called in to investigate some stock-certificate forgeries discovered in a Dominican priory safe when V. I.'s great-aunt Rosa, who works for the priory, is fired from her job, under suspicion of complicity in the forgeries. The reason V. I. agrees to help her Aunt Rosa in spite of the old lady's mysterious hatred of her is that V. I.'s mother, Gabriella, whom the old lady particularly despised, on her deathbed made V. I. promise to help her great-aunt if she were ever in need. However Rosa soon calls her off the investigation, the originals of the forged stock certificates are mysteriously returned to the priory, and V. I. begins receiving threatening phone calls warning her not to look into the matter further. Nonetheless she pursues the investigation and uncovers an attempt by a secret lay organization of the Catholic Church called Corpus Christi to take over an insurance company called Ajax. The mastermind behind this takeover bid is Xavier O'Faolin, a crooked Church functionary in charge of the Vatican's financial affairs, who is attempting to gain control of Ajax in order to “launder” (i.e., put into circulation) millions of dollars from a huge bank embezzlement operation; the forged stock certificates were commissioned by one of the Dominican friars attempting to raise money for the takeover by secretly selling some of the priory's stock holdings and replacing the original certificates with forgeries. This forgery scheme also involves the Mafia, which provided the forgeries and is therefore also interested in squelching V. I.'s investigation: the telephone threats on V. I. are carried through when a Mafia-hired assailant attempting to throw acid in her eyes is deflected and instead burns her neck and back, and her apartment is subsequently set on fire and gutted.

The most serious crime in the novel, however, is not a financial crime, but one committed to cover up the traces of the Ajax takeover bid, and it is here that we start to approach the novel's relations to Iphigenia in Aulis. When V. I. asks her friend Agnes Paciorek, a stock-broker, to look into the Ajax takeover, Agnes is killed, and V. I.'s investigation of her murder slowly comes to focus on Agnes's own mother, Catherine Paciorek, a multimillionaire member of Corpus Christi and a close friend of O'Faolin. This death, which, as we shall see, comes to take on the value of a sacrifice, becomes the focus of the novel; and although V. I. never proves conclusively that Catherine Paciorek had her daughter put to death to keep her own involvement in the takeover a secret, she does discover evidence linking Catherine Paciorek to the takeover when she breaks into a stock-broker's office and xeroxes records of stock transactions. V. I. also disguises herself as a Dominican friar in order to break into O'Faolin's room at the priory and steal a letter implicating O'Faolin in the “laundering” of the embezzled money. Armed only with these pieces of evidence, along with a few notes scribbled by Agnes on the day of her death, she convinces Catherine Paciorek's husband of his wife's guilt. O'Faolin is killed when a bomb is anonymously planted in his car, presumably to prevent him from implicating the Mafia in the F. B. I. investigation into the forgery.

So concludes the public aspect of the investigation, but the end of the novel places a greater importance on the personal and private ramifications of the inquiry. Catherine Paciorek, consumed with fear and anger at being discovered and with guilt over her role in her daughter's death, has a stroke which leaves her incapacitated. V. I. receives an anonymous gift of $25,000 (presumably from the Mafia don, as compensation for her burnt apartment) which allows her to buy the co-op on Racine Avenue. Aunt Rosa reveals that the reason for her hatred is that many years earlier, before V. I.'s birth, Rosa's husband fell in love with V. I.'s mother, Gabriella, and when Rosa threw her out of her house, he committed suicide. Finally, V. I. reveals that her middle name is Iphigenia.

V. I.'s climactic revelation notwithstanding the points of contact between Killing Orders and the Iphigenia in Aulis may not be immediately apparent. Indeed, the differences in genre, setting, and tone which separate the two works may make our premise seem somewhat preposterous. To begin with, we may well wonder why a drama about trying to raise the winds would be set in Chicago, for from the very first page of Paretsky's novel the Midwestern metropolis lives up to its nickname of the Windy City: “The January wind scattered dead leaves around my feet”; “A strong wind was blowing across the lake”; “I slowly finished my cappuccino and went back out into a minor blizzard”; “Now I could hear the sullen roar of Lake Michigan in front of me. The regular, angry slapping of wave against cliff made me shiver violently.” Our detection thus begins with the question: how are Killing Orders and the Iphigenia in Aulis (secretly) alike? How does the tragedy secretly order the detective novel?

In fact, once V. I. establishes her link to Iphigenia, a number of motifs in the novel, like accumulating clues in a case to be solved, fall into place. At the end of the novel V. I. establishes herself as an Iphigenia figure not only because of her name, but also because of a persistent dream she has that her mother is about to place her on the sacrificial fires, and in the course of the novel, starting with the very first scene, V. I. repeatedly, almost obsessively mentions her hatred of smoke, as if in fear and anticipation of this sacrifice:

He took a pipe from the desk top next to him and began the pipe smoker's interminable ritual with it. With luck I'd be gone before he actually lit it. All smoke makes me ill. …

This first mention of smoke establishes its links to ritual, in this case the harmless ritual of the pipe but by association the ritual of sacrifice. Indeed the attack on V. I.'s life takes the form of arson, as her apartment is set on fire.

As the last sentence of the novel points out, Iphigenia is associated in mythology with the goddess Artemis—who demands Iphigenia's sacrifice and whose priestess Iphigenia later becomes in some versions of the myth—and V. I.'s association with Iphigenia as a protégée of Artemis is supported by two motifs in the novel: running, the principal activity of the huntress Artemis, and woods and forests, her preferred habitat. V. I. not only jogs religiously, but she mentions it every time she does. Trees and woods are everywhere in the novel: whether in the city or in the distant suburbs, street names (Chestnut Street, Oak Street, Arbor Drive), town names (Lake Forest, where the Pacioreks live), even names of corporations (Wood-Sage, the dummy corporation established by Corpus Christi to take over the Ajax insurance company) seem to echo Artemis's domain. And V. I.'s final confrontation with Mrs. Paciorek, which takes place on Arbor Drive in Lake Forest, requires V. I. to go through the woods at the back of the Paciorek's house in order to break in secretly.

But if V. I. is an Iphigenia figure, what is the nature of her heroism and her sacrifice? At the center of Killing Orders is in fact a double sacrifice, the successful sacrifice of Agnes Paciorek and the attempted sacrifice of V. I., both at the hands of a patriarchal order whose main goal is to reproduce itself in an unchanged form from generation to generation. In Paretsky's novel, even more explicitly than in Euripides’ play, the heroic “order” attacks the familial order; in fact, V. I.'s heroism is a kind of disorder; from the perspective of a conformist social order, her heroism, or difference, is itself a crime. It is for this reason that the starting point for all of the criminal activity in the novel, and the ultimate source of Agnes Paciorek's sacrifice, is the take-over bid for an insurance company named Ajax, a name which Paretsky tells me was meant to suggest an association with “the hero of the Trojan wars.” Insurance is the central illusion of Killing Orders, as V. I. herself points out in her fury at a would-be suitor:

Anger was tightening my vocal cords. “No one protects me, Roger. I don't live in that kind of universe. … Just because the people I deal with play with fire instead of money doesn't mean I need or want protection. If I did, how do you think I'd have survived all these years?”

I was clenching and unclenching my fists, trying to keep rage under control. Protection. The middle-class dream. My father protecting Gabriella in a Milwaukee Avenue bar. My mother giving him loyalty and channeling her fierce creative passions into a South Chicago tenement in gratitude.

Insurance is not what saves one from sacrifice; it is what requires sacrifice, for rather than simply preserving order, it becomes a metaphor for a system which forces one to stay in order.

The model of familial order in the novel and one of the moving forces behind the Ajax takeover is Catherine Paciorek, who more than anyone else in the novel is the perpetrator of sacrifice. A morally repressive figure, Catherine Paciorek is a wealthy, archconservative Catholic who will do anything to protect her reputation, and if she sacrifices her daughter, it is not only for looking into an insurance fraud in which the mother is implicated, but also for the daughter's nonconformism, which Mrs. Paciorek feels to be a fundamental attack on the familial order. Agnes Paciorek, whose name suggests a sacrificial victim (agnus paschalis, Pascal lamb, or perhaps agni [Dei] passio, suffering of the lamb of God, that is, the passion of Jesus Christ), defines herself by opposition to her mother. As Mrs. Paciorek puts it:

“It was enough for Agnes to know I believed in something for her to believe the opposite. Abortion. The war in Vietnam. The Church. I thought I had seen my family name degraded in every possible way. I didn't realize how much I could have forgiven until she announced in public that she was a homosexual.”

The keynote of being in the familial order is reproduction, not only having children of one's own, but becoming a carbon copy (or rather, as we shall see, a xerox) of one's parents. The model of familial order in the younger generation is Agnes's sister: “At thirty she already looked like Mrs. Paciorek, including an imposing bosom under her expensive black suit.” This familial uniformity is paralleled in the novel by the Dominican order of friars, all of whom look alike, as V. I. tells us when she is introduced to them:

These were all “brothers,” not “fathers.” Since they tended to look alike in their fresh white robes I promptly forgot their names.

To look alike is to belong to the order, to be in order, to be identifiable as a copy of an inherited model and therefore to be utterly unheroic, to have no name. The essence of the order embodied by Catherine Paciorek is to be reproducible.

If the goal of the order is to perpetuate and reproduce itself, V. I. in a number of ways avoids “reproduction.” When in the course of her investigation she breaks into a brokerage office, discovers files indicating that Catherine Paciorek has bought a considerable number of shares of Ajax stock, and xeroxes the files, she is surprised by a night watchman and forced to hide inside of the xerox machine:

As the watchman fumbled with his keys, I hit the off button and looked around desperately for a hiding place. The machine had a paper cupboard built in underneath. My five-feet-eight frame fit badly, but I squeezed in and pulled the door as nearly shut as I could.

V. I.'s difficulty in fitting inside the xerox machine becomes a metaphor for her refusal merely to copy the role which the order has set out for her, an order embodied by the substitute father figure Bobby Mallory, a policeman who was her father's best friend and who “thinks Tony Warshawski's daughter should be making a better world by producing happy healthy babies, not by catching desperadoes”; “he didn't want me in the detective business, he wanted me in Bridgeport or Melrose Park with six children and, presumably, a husband.” When V. I.'s frame does not comfortably fit into the copying machine, she becomes one of the heroes hiding inside the Trojan horse rather than someone being protected by those heroes; the only way she finds to escape being caught by the police or the watchman is by disguising herself in a subservient role: she dresses herself in one of “the regulation smocks of the cleaning women” and when confronted by two policemen as she is leaving the building she has just broken into, she bluffs her way past them by using her mother's maiden name and her mother's language (Italian) as well as the disguise of a “regulation” female profession, thereby triply returning to a female “order.”

Indeed, when V. I., by masquerading as a cleaning woman, momentarily leaves the heroic order, her action is a crystallization of the conflict between the heroic order and the familial order, a conflict which we also find in the motif of dirt and cleansing, related to tragic catharsis, a purification. Being in order essentially means being clean, conforming to one's models and thus being free of any “foreign” bodies, so that it is being out of order—that is, in the heroic order—which requires catharsis or cleansing: Ajax, the name of the insurance company, is also the name of a popular household cleanser, and this rather banal domestic association adds the cleanliness of soap to the safety of insurance in drowning out the heroic resonance in the name “Ajax.”

Thus Killing Orders is quite the opposite of the Iphigenia in Aulis in that the sacrifice in the detective novel is not called for by the heroic order but rather by the familial order; Agnes's and V. I.'s sacrifice, the proof if not the source of their heroism-as-difference, is carried out in the name of the familial order. The take-over of the Ajax insurance company comes to be synonymous with the familial order's attempt to appropriate—that is, to undermine—all possibility of heroism; Ajax, rather than a figure belonging to the heroic order, becomes the sign of the familial order's constant attempts to “fix” (“cleanse,” that is, make similar and anonymous, or “ensure,” that is, render harmless) the heroic order.

The main reason that takeover bid ultimately leads to the (attempted) sacrifice of V. I. is that in a number of ways she refuses to fit into the order of which the insurance company becomes the emblem. V. I., whose barely controllable fury is apparent in the passage just cited, replaces Achilles, thus playing both Iphigenia and Achilles in her own version of the Aulis drama. V. I.'s friend Lotty describes her in terms closely recalling Achilles:

“You're a Jill-the-Giant-Killer,” [Lotty] said, her black eyes worried. “You're always taking on things that are too big for you, and maybe one day you will take on one big thing too many. But that is your way. If you weren't living so, you would have a long unhappy life. Your choice is for the satisfied life, and we will hope it, too, is a long one.”

V. I.'s choice is essentially Achilles’ choice, between a long and unsatisfying life and a short but glorious one. This is an Iphigenia who is herself in the heroic order.

Indeed, one of the most striking characteristics of the relation between Killing Orders and the Iphigenia in Aulis is that the “sacrificers” in the detective novel are not men, but women: the two male figures who clash over Iphigenia's sacrifice, Agamemnon and Achilles, that is, Iphigenia's father and future husband, are conspicuously absent in the detective novel and are replaced by female figures: V. I. herself replaces Achilles, Agnes Paciorek is “sacrificed” by her mother, not by her father, and in the novel's final scene, when V. I. reveals her middle name, she tells her friend Lotty, herself a substitute mother-figure, of her dream of being sacrificed by her own mother:

“Do you know what my middle name is, Lotty?” I burst out. “Do you know the myth of Iphigenia? How Agamemnon sacrificed her to get a fair wind to sail for Troy? Since that terrible day at the priory, I can't stop dreaming about it. Only in my dreams it's Gabriella. She keeps laying me on the pyre and setting the torch to it and weeping for me. Oh, Lotty! Why didn't she tell me? Why did she make me give her that terrible promise? Why did she do it?”

V. I.'s dream makes a surprising substitution: the Agamemnon figure in the novel would appear to be Gabriella, so that V. I. is “sacrificed” by her mother just as Agnes Paciorek is sacrificed by hers.

Moreover V. I.'s final traumatic confrontation of her mother's actions underscores the ambiguity and complexity of Gabriella's “crime,” for V. I. here identifies three distinct elements to Gabriella's attack on the familial order: “Why did she do it?” “Why didn't she tell me?” “Why did she make me give her that terrible promise [to take care of Aunt Rosa after Gabriella's death]?”; in other words: 1) Why did she commit the crime [of falling in love with her aunt's husband]?; 2) Why did she hide the crime?; and (most importantly) 3) Why did she pass the crime on to the next generation? For it is, as we have seen, only because of V. I.'s promise to Gabriella that she becomes involved in the Ajax investigation, and because of that involvement that Agnes dies, a fact which doesn't escape V. I.'s notice. By the novel's chain of events it is Gabriella's promise, meant to preserve or rather to repair a familial order which she herself attacked, which leads to a sacrifice carried out in the next generation in the name of the familial order (Mrs. Paciorek's sacrifice of Agnes).


This is the point at which the Iphigenia story becomes Oedipal: V. I., reacting against what she perceives as her mother's conformity and subservience to the familial order, discovers that she herself has spent her entire life doing nothing more than repeating her mother's original rebellion against the family order: Gabriella's loyalty to her husband is a compensation for his saving her from the streets when her Aunt Rosa kicked her out for her involvement with her aunt's husband. The promise exacted from V. I. by her dying mother then takes on the value of an oracle which openly says one thing (“protect the familial order …”) but harbors a hidden meaning (“… because your natural tendency will be to attack it”). For the true sense of V. I.'s “oracle”—like Oedipus's—is that the familial order is itself based on suppressing disorder, on suppressing Gabriella's, or V. I.'s, or anyone else's revolt. Oedipus thinks he is preserving familial order by leaving Corinth for Thebes, but later discovers that he has fulfilled the oracle of patricide and incest by fleeing it: in the history of tragic irony, this unwitting fulfillment has become a paradigm. But what we as readers of Iphigenia's story can add to the understanding of the Oedipal oracle is that the oracle itself is more about the inevitability of disorder within the family “order” than about simply preserving that order: to say that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother is to say that disorder is in the order of things, that it is not an exception but part of the rules.

If Agnes Paciorek is V. I.'s double in undermining the patriarchal order—indeed Catherine Paciorek blames V. I. for all of Agnes's non-conformist behavior—the question then becomes: is V. I.'s investigation finally a gesture of order (stemming from a promise to protect her Aunt Rosa) or of disorder (her refusal to be a mere copy of the order)?

In order to begin to answer this question, let us look at the single most important episode linking the novel to the sacrifice of Iphigenia. The episode describes an attack on V. I. in which her assailant tries to blind her by throwing acid into her eyes. Because she deflects the attack, the acid spills onto her neck, leaving an angry wound:

I pulled back and started to kick when I sensed his arm coming up toward my face. I ducked and fell over in a rolling ball, felt liquid on the back of my neck underneath the muffler. … [T]he back of my neck began burning as though I'd been stung by fifty wasps. … The collar of the crepe de chine jacket had dissolved. I twisted around to look at my back in the mirror. A thin ring of red showed where the skin had been partially eaten through. A long fat finger of red went down my spine. Acid burn.

The attempt to blind V. I. would seem to put Killing Orders into the tradition of Oedipal detective fiction, with the investigator trying to find out more than she is allowed to see. But the attack on V. I.'s eyes, the site of her identity as an investigator (“my eyesight, my livelihood,” the term “private eye,” which V. I. uses to describe herself), fails, or rather is deflected into a different kind of attack: the acid burns not her eyes but her neck, the site of Iphigenia's sacrifice (cf. Iphigenia's words in the Iphigenia in Aulis: “For I will courageously offer my neck in silence.”). What started out as an Oedipal blinding scene turns into a figure of Iphigenia-like sacrifice; indeed, this incident invites us to look further into the relation between the myths of Oedipus and Iphigenia.

Beyond certain differences in chronology, both stories deal with the relations between order and disorder. Oedipus discovers that what appeared to be in order—his entire story since the return to Thebes and the saving of the city, his establishment of family and lineage—is based on a disorder, on a cataclysmic double attack on the familial and civic order (patricide, incest). In Iphigenia at Aulis, conversely, the Achaians are made to confront the fact that the heroic order is based on an attack against the familial order. Whether the realization of disorder comes before or after the order, both dramas are about the shocking revelation of the true nature of an apparent order, that is, the disorder that underlies it.

The fundamental difference between the two plays is the final relation of the hero or heroine to the (dis)order which is the subject of the drama. While Oedipus's revelation leads to a blinding, a figure for the impossibility of assimilating the knowledge of the true nature of the familial and civic order and of one's own position within it, at the end of the Iphigenia in Aulis—which is a prospectively rather than a retrospectively oriented tragedy—a protective illusion of heroism still remains intact in spite of the play's attack on the family: the saving myth of the Iphigenia is that the heroic order, even if it demands the sacrifice of the familial order, is worth the sacrifice, and will eventually make up for its initial attack on the familial order by ultimately protecting that order. Iphigenia herself becomes a heroine in order to sacrifice herself; her acceptance, indeed her exaltation of the sacrifice provides an articulation between the familial order and the heroic order, and her stance at least implicitly tells us that the heroic order is worth upholding, whatever the cost.

But Killing Orders suggests that the stories of Oedipus and Iphigenia are not ultimately as clearly distinguishable as they seem, and it is precisely this confusion that will allow us to move to Racine's version of the myth. Perhaps the central characteristic of Oedipal detective fiction is that in one form or another the investigator's identity ultimately comes to be confused with the criminal's, so that the story being investigated slowly begins to overlap with the investigator's own story. This is certainly the case in Killing Orders, in which V. I.'s most important discovery has to do with her own mother's betrayal of her family. V. I.'s investigation into Agnes Paciorek's death—that is, Agnes's sacrifice at the hands of her own mother—finally becomes confused with V. I.'s discovery about her own mother's “sacrifice” of her. Agnes and V. I. are doubles in the novel, double heroines and double sacrificial victims. V. I., in investigating a maternal sacrifice, is, like Oedipus, unknowingly investigating her own story.

V. I. is thus both an Iphigenia figure (sacrificial victim) and an Oedipus figure (investigator who turns out to be investigating her own story), a figure who establishes the priority of one order over another (sacrifice of Iphigenia) and one who discovers that no apparent order can ever erase a fundamental, hidden disorder (Oedipus). It is this very ambiguity of the nature of order and its delicate relation to disorder which in fact distinguishes Racine's play from Euripides', as we shall presently see, and if, as we stated earlier, we can move from Killing Orders to Racine's Iphigénie only indirectly, through the intermediary of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis,Killing Orders does provide us with a point of transaction to Racine no less remarkable for being, apparently, coincidental. For the dry cleaner to which V. I. takes her smoke-filled clothing after her apartment is burned down is located on Racine Avenue:

“And if you're taking those to a dry cleaner, there's a good one around the corner on Racine.”

The woman at the cleaners informed me triumphantly that it would cost me extra to get the smoke out. She made a great show of inspecting each garment, clucking her teeth over it, and writing it down on a slip with the laboriousness of a traffic cop writing a ticket. At last, impatient, I grabbed up the clothes and left.

A second cleaner, sharing a dingy storefront with a tailor several blocks down, was more obliging. The woman at the counter accepted the smoky clothes without comment and wrote up the ticket quickly.

The cleaner “on Racine” emphatically points out the price of getting the smoke out, that is, the price of the attempted sacrifice of V. I(phigenia). The other cleaner, which is also where V. I. has her Dominican uniform made, is not on Racine Avenue but on Montrose Avenue, and here the smoke can be removed at no extra cost. Indeed, Racine's entire play, and particularly in its relation to Euripides', asks this very question: At what price can the smoke of the sacrifice be “removed”? What is the price of the death of Eriphile, Iphigénie's double? What is the cost of tragic catharsis, or “cleansing”? Can the smoke of the sacrificial fires ever be removed once and for all?


Racine's addition of the character of Eriphile, the “other” Iphigénie, most obviously distinguishes his play from other versions of the myth, especially from the Euripides drama upon which it is largely based, and gives Racine's play, more than any other tragic treatment of the myth, the appearance and structure of a detective story. Racine's play begins with an oracle saying that the winds for Troy cannot be had without the sacrifice of Iphigénie; it ends with the discovery that Achille's mysterious captive from Lesbos, Eriphile, who is finally revealed to be the secret daughter of Helen and Theseus and Iphigénie's first cousin, is actually, unbeknownst to herself, also named Iphigénie. The horror of sacrificing the “virtuous” Iphigénie, as Racine himself calls his heroine in his preface to the play, is avoided when Eriphile/Iphigénie is duly sacrificed in place of her more fortunate cousin. The organizing question of Racine's play is therefore “which Iphigénie?”, its action apparently nothing more than a successful detection. But in fact what Racine suggests by his creation of a second Iphigénie is that the most serious challenge to the familial order comes not from an actual sacrifice of Iphigenia—since in his play Eriphile is there to “save the day”—but rather from the heroine's ambiguous attitude toward the sacrifice and toward those who try either to impose it on her or to save her from it. Racine's play will bring the “detective” element of our intertextual reading to an end, for discovering “which” Iphigénie does not mean understanding the tragedy; let us examine why this is so.

The center of Racine's play is the relation linking Iphigénie and Eriphile, or the two “Iphigenies”: Eriphile is Iphigénie's double precisely because the two figures are the two components of a single personality attempting to form itself. Iphigénie herself wonders aloud whether she and Eriphile can ever be separated:

Vous ne pouviez sans moi demeurer a Mycene,
Me verra-t-on sans vous partir avec la reine?
You couldn't stay in Mycenae without me;
Will I leave here with the queen, without you?
Je vois ce que jamais je n'ai voulu penser:
Achille … Vous brulez que je ne sois partie.
I see now what I never wanted to believe:
Achille … You're longing for me to leave.

These admonitions of Iphigénie to Eriphile have the impact of an internal dialogue: Iphigénie, who has been described as one of Racine's most Cornelian characters, the epitome of virtue and duty, is here speaking to the part of herself—Eriphile—in which nonvirtuous desire is lodged, so that the question of whether she will be able to leave Aulis without Eriphile becomes the question of whether she can extricate from within herself the desire which is in conflict with her virtue, the hidden disorder which might compromise the familial order.

More specifically, Iphigénie and Eriphile form two parts of the same character, one in order, one out of order, in their relations to the play's two male protagonists, its centers of power: Agamemnon and Achille. This is already true in the cousins’ first shared appearance onstage, their meeting with Agamemnon:

Vous n'avez devant vous qu'une jeune princesse
A qui j'avais pour moi vante votre tendresse.
Cent fois lui promettant mes soins, votre bonte,
J'ai fait gloire à ses yeux de ma félicité.
Que va-t-elle penser de votre indifférence?
Ai-je flatté ses voeux d'une fausse espérance?
You see before you just a (or just one) young princess
To whom I boasted of your tenderness for me.
Promising her my care and your kindness a hundred times,
I gloried in my good fortune in front of her.
What is she going to think of your indifference?
Have I assuaged her demands with false hope?

“Vous n'avez devant vous qu'une jeune princesse”: this means not only “Eriphile is no one to feel inhibited in front of,” but also, “There is only one princess here, not two.” Iphigénie's assurances to Eriphile of Agamemnon's devotion are the language of duty speaking to desire: Eriphile, who revels in her status as unloved, rejected daughter (“Je reçus et je vois le jour que je respire, / Sans que père ni mère ait daigné me sourire” [I was given life and see the light of day, / Without a father or a mother ever condescending to smile at me], is also Iphigénie's hidden desiring function, which by the very nature of desire is never satisfied, so that this “Iphigénie” can never be sufficiently reassured of her father's love. If Iphigénie may allow herself to think only of Agamemnon's utter devotion to her (“Quel bonheur de me voir la fille d'un tel père!” [What happiness to see myself the daughter of such a father!]; “J'ai cru n'avoir au ciel que des grâces à rendre” [I thought I had only thanks to give to heaven]), when she assures Eriphile of Agamemnon's fatherly affection she is doing nothing more than soothing her own secret fears. This is the dutiful Iphigénie trying to close the gap between herself and the desiring Iphigénie; it is the conscience trying to make desire accept the very limitations which are inimical to desire, trying to put desire in order.

This link of similarity and opposition between Iphigénie and Eriphile most strongly characterizes their relationship to the shared object of their desire, Achille. Although the masochistic nature of Eriphile's desire has been commented upon, the complex nature of Iphigénie's love for Achille has not been sufficiently emphasized. At the outset, there is no conflict between virtue and desire for Iphigénie: desire is, in fact, compatible with familial order, as Achille is approved of by both Iphigénie's father (“[Cet amant] / Qu'un père de si loin m'ordonne de chercher” [This lover / That my father orders me to seek out from so far away]), and her mother (Clytemnestre: “Je vous l'ai dans Argos présenté de ma main” [I introduced him to you in Argos with my own hand]). But whereas Iphigénie at no time fully opposes or revolts against her father's plans for her own sacrifice, that exemplary bit of obedience draws our attention away from her refusal to reject Achille. Iphigénie herself draws the parallel between the two “sacrifices,” of her life and of her love for Achille:

Vous voyez de quel oeil, et comme indifférente,
J'ai reçu de ma mort la nouvelle sanglante.
Je n'en ai point pâli. Que n'avez-vous pu voir
A quel excès tantôt allait mon désespoir,
Quand, presque en arrivant, un récit peu fidèle
M'a de votre inconstance annoncé la nouvelle!
You can see with what an indifferent eye
I took in the bloody news of my death.
I didn't even turn pale. If only you could have seen
To what excesses my despair went just now,
When, just after I arrived, an unfaithful account
Told me the news of your inconstancy!

In this light the confrontation between Iphigénie and Eriphile takes on the impact of a meeting of Iphigénie with herself, of her conscience with her desire. It is absolutely essential to remember that when this scene takes place, Iphigénie has just been instructed by Clytemnestre to forget Achille; this is the moment when Iphigénie's desire becomes split from the familial order, when her love for Achille falls out of order. If Iphigénie does not make the slightest response to her mother's orders, this is because her indirect reply will take the form of a cry of astonishment, anguish and resistance directed purportedly at Eriphile, but more fundamentally toward the part of herself that is Eriphile: “Oui, vous l'aimez, perfide!” [Yes, you love him, perfidious one!]. This is a discovery not only that Eriphile has been in love with Achille from the very beginning, but also that Iphigénie herself, now turned “perfidious” because her love is no longer in line with her filial duty, is still in love with Achille in spite of the dictates of the familial order.

Thus the most important sacrifice in Racine's drama is not the threatened sacrifice of Iphigénie's life, but the demanded sacrifice of her love for Achille once that love is outside the familial order and potentially disruptive of it. This is the sacrifice which she rejects:

Achille trop ardent l'a peut-être offensé,
Mais le roi, qui le hait, veut que je le haïsse;
Il ordonne à mon coeur cet affreux sacrifice. …
Dieux plus doux, vous n'avez demandé que ma vie!
Mourons, obéissons. …
Achille, too fiery, has perhaps offended him,
But the king, who hates him, wants me to hate him;
He is ordering this frightful sacrifice of my heart.
Gentler gods, you asked only for my life!
Let us die, let us obey.

The ordered sacrifice (“Il ordonne à mon coeur cet affreux sacrifice”) that Iphigénie refuses to make is a sacrifice of her own disorder, of her desire for Achille, and when she says “obéissons,” her gesture of obedience (offering up her life) is designed—and undoubtedly succeeds in its intention—to cover up a more serious act of revolt against Agamemnon's authority than a refusal of the sacrifice of her life would be, that of not sacrificing her love for Achille. Continuing to love Achille against the demands of virtue means creating an internal division, a split embodied by Eriphile, the “desiring” Iphigénie.

Iphigénie's heroic illusion is that Eriphile, the nonvirtuous lover, is not a part of her, is not “another Iphigénie.” Iphigénie nowhere openly admits either to herself or to anyone else that her love for Achille is in any danger of undermining her status as the most virtuous of daughters. It is Eriphile alone who bears the brunt of her reproaches, Eriphile who is labeled as perfidious, and this is so precisely because it is Eriphile's role to oppose rather than conform to anything that is presented to her. Iphigénie, “virtuous” to the end, would literally sooner die than recognize that she is out of order, indeed, that there is an adversative relation at the heart of the familial order itself.

When at the end of Racine's play the “true” identity of Iphigénie as sacrificial victim is revealed, when Eriphile plunges the knife into her breast rather than wait to have her throat cut as the terms of the sacrifice demand, what we are being told is that the sacrifice is a failure, that the “other Iphigénie” has not been properly killed—that is, has not been correctly or truly sacrificed—because what she represents can no more be extricated once and for all than it can ever be assimilated into an order. Perhaps Iphigénie herself understands this, as we are told that “La seule Iphigénie / Dans ce commun bonheur pleure son ennemie” [Iphigénie alone / In the midst of this general rejoicing weeps for her enemy]. Why is Iphigénie crying? For whom is she crying? Are these tears of virtuous condescension toward the unfortunate victim, or tears of secret identification with her? Is “la seule Iphigénie” to be translated as “Iphigénie alone,” thus emphasizing her nobility of spirit—no one else has the generosity to mourn for an evil soul like Eriphile—or as “the only Iphigénie [left],” which would remind us that the two Iphigénies are not as separate as we are led to believe?

If the oracle which opens the play and demands the sacrifice of “une fille du sang d'Hélène” [a daughter of Helen's blood] named Iphigénie is finally taken to apply to Eriphile, the oracle which Eriphile receives might equally be taken to apply to Iphigénie:

J'ignore qui je suis, et pour comble d'horreur
Un oracle effrayant m'attache à mon erreur,
Et quand je veux chercher le sang qui m'a fait naître,
Me dit que sans périr je ne me puis connaître.
I don't know who I am, and the height of horror
Is that a frightful oracle attaches me to my error,
And when I wish to search for the bloodline that gave me birth,
Tells me that I can't know myself without dying.

Iphigénie, too—like Killing Orders—combines the myths of Iphigénia and Oedipus in the relation that the play develops between Iphigénie and Eriphile. To know oneself for what one is, which for Iphigénie means knowing the Eriphile within her, means dying as oneself, that is, losing what one thought was one's identity in the cataclysm of a tragic recognition. Oedipus's tragic recognition consists of his discovery that he is himself the criminal he was pursuing, that he is everything which he based his previous identity on rejecting, and this is precisely the sort of recognition hovering beneath the weeping eyelids of Racine's Iphigénie.

Eriphile must be sacrificed before the heroes can leave for Troy, and they leave happy (“Dans ce commun bonheur”) in the thought that the sacrifice has restored order. They leave Aulis not defiantly, in rebellion against the apparent cruelty of the oracular demands, but harmoniously: Eriphile's sacrifice leaves even Achilles and Agamemnon, the protagonists of the miniature civil war that opens and organizes the Iliad, in seeming agreement (“[Achille et Agamemnon] tous deux d'intelligence, / Sont prêts à confirmer leur auguste alliance” [Achille and Agamemnon] [both in agreement, / Are ready to confirm their August alliance]). But Racine's play tells us that this “auguste alliance,” this agreement, is not the source of tragic heroism. The goal of the familial order is reproduction, the replication of order from generation to generation; tragic heroism is precisely what escapes this ordering. Eriphile represents the unassimilable element in any order; her protest—indeed, her embodiment of protest—is the very essence of the tragic heroine's (or hero's) desire to be more than merely the product of the system that produced her, the node of resistance that might be called the refusal of the particular ever to be fully classifiable by the general, the perpetual renewal of the sui generis in the face of any attempt at systematization or ordering. Tragic heroism, seen in this light, is not simply disorder, nor even an absence of order, but rather a protest against the inadequacy of order; it is not a positive system, but rather an implicit criticism of a system, an indication that there is always something that won't fit into any system, whatever it may be.

To this extent, Eriphile is a double not only of Iphigénie, but also of Achille … for the essence of Achillean heroism is protest, the ultimate rejection of even a heroic ordering like the Achaian hierarchy (Agamemnon's political priority over Achilles, the greatest of warriors). Achilles’ wrath, like Eriphile-Iphigénie's, is the kernel of negation and affirmation—negation of what comes to be felt to be an inadequate order, affirmation of the part of the individual which escapes that order—that is the essence of heroism. Its paradoxical nature, and more specifically its paradoxical relation to order, can perhaps be best summed up if we consider it to be an affirmation of the individual's need to refuse.

What, then, is the relation between recognition and sacrifice, the domains of Oedipus and Iphigenia, that the end of Iphigénie leaves us with? It might be said that while Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis is a tragedy of sacrifice, the end of Racine's tragedy is based on the opposition between a tragedy of sacrifice and a tragedy of recognition. The end of Euripides’ tragedy of sacrifice brings a return to order; the willingness to sacrifice Iphigenia establishes the priority of one order over another and thus purports to root out the source of disorder. Iphigénie, too, is a tragedy of sacrifice for Clytemnestre, Agamemnon, Achille, and all of the Greek warriors: Clytemnestre even closes the play with a statement demonstrating her rather shocking illusion that the drama's conflicts have been resolved by Achille (“Par quel prix, quel encens, ô ciel, puis-je jamais / Récompenser Achille, et payer tes bienfaits!” [By what prize, what offering, o heavens, can I ever / Reward Achille, and pay back your benefits!]); in her mind Iphigénie's insurance policy is still (or already) in Achille's name.

For Iphigénie alone, and perhaps for the spectator as well, this is a tragedy of recognition. What Iphigénie seems to understand in her tears is the failed nature of the sacrifice, the impossibility of situating Eriphile outside of herself, the return of the Oedipal in her story. Thus to ask “which Iphigénie?” is not to have understood Racine's tragedy; it is to want to make the tragedy into a detective story, a story in which, finally, order is restored, rather than one which explores the nature of order and reveals its relation to the disorder which it can never fully do away with.


The recognition that takes place at the end of Iphigénie is thus not simple: Iphigénie seems to recognize the complex nature of the sacrifice of Eriphile; at the same time as she understands its inevitability, she understands its artificiality and its limitations, that is, its non-definitive nature. The end of Iphigénie tells us that sacrifice is necessary for the maintenance of an order, but that it must always be renewed, and it is the necessity of this renewal which can be understood only by tragic recognition. Achille and the Greeks must truly believe that (only) the “right” Iphigénie has been sacrificed to affirm their alliance, but the tragedy of recognition tells us that nothing, not even sacrifice, ever solves the problem of disorder once and for all.

V. I.'s recognition at the end of Killing Orders makes it, too, into a tragedy. V. I. recognizes that the social order is a killing, repressive force, a tyranny which bases its authority on combating a disorder which it can neither tolerate nor do without; that it requires little more than knowing how to transform its victims—like V. I.'s mother—into its guardians, criminals in the next series of sacrifices; and that social norms themselves are based on—indeed, have need of—her protest. She recognizes that the victim of the (killing) familial order, Agnes Paciorek, is also (in the eyes of that order) a criminal simply being punished, that given the relation of antinomy between the familial order and the heroic order the concepts of criminal and victim are not completely discrete.

The common point in the recognitions which end these two works is that in both cases order is not a simplification, but rather a binarization, a division into two seemingly opposing components one of which constantly attempts to exclude the other, but which are in fact in a state of symbiosis, each struggling to affirm and express its rights, each needing to repress the other in order to define itself. Although finding the criminal in works which question the adequacy of order itself may require a good deal of detective work, “identifying” the criminal is not simply an act of detection, but rather, ultimately, an act of recognition, of recognizing that the criminal's identity is itself not simple.

Thus, Iphigénie and Killing Orders offer remarkably similar readings of Euripides: both works are about the impossibility of ever killing disorder completely and of doing away with sacrifice. More compellingly than the question: “which Iphigenia?”, Iphigénie and Killing Orders pose the question: “how many Iphigenias?” Now that we have finally brought Iphigénie and Killing Orders together, let us conclude by looking to the Oedipus Tyrannus one last time to examine the true nature of “la seule Iphigénie” who is left at the end of Racine's tragedy and the solitary Iphigenia figure who is identified at the end of Paretsky's detective novel.

The question “how many criminals?” is actually the very question which has organized much recent criticism about the Oedipus Tyrannus; it is the single issue which most compromises that play's status as a simple detective story: how many people attacked Laïus at the crossroads? If the eyewitness's response to this question, “many,” holds firm, then Oedipus is cleared of blame in his father's death, for he was alone when he defended himself against the old man at the crossroads, but as has been noted by a number of critics, the Oedipus Tyrannus never comes back to this crucial question, and Oedipus finally comes to assume his guilt in the matter. What in a detective story would be the key to the outcome of the investigation is summarily dropped.

This apparent side-stepping of the question of the number of criminals—a question absolutely crucial to the investigation—is visible in an entirely different light if we understand that the answer to it is “many” because we are all destined to be guilty of attacking the familial order, that such an attack, as the oracle tells us, is in the very nature of the order itself; this will be Freud's conclusion about the Oedipus myth and one of the points of departure for his theory of development. Even if Oedipus was alone at the triple crossroads, his action, the unwitting and unwilling but inevitable violence against the familial order, was done in the name of everyone, indeed, was foreseen (and used) by the order itself in the form of the oracle given to Oedipus at Delphi.

The question in Iphigénie and Killing Orders of “how many Iphigenias?” is even more complex than that posed by the Oedipus Tyrannus (“how many criminals?”), because it means, at the same time “how many criminals?” and “how many victims?”; that is, it suggests that the criminal is not fully distinguishable from the victim. The fact that Oedipus's question also means both those things is not clear until the Oedipus at Colonus, in which Oedipus lodges a protest against the divine and human orders that have been his downfall, and the myth of Iphigenia, too, is bipartite: Oedipus's story at Colonus corresponds to Iphigenia's escape to Tauris (this is the story told in Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris). There she is first made to carry out a human sacrificial rite for Artemis—the escaped victim of sacrifice thus turning into its agent—and then, when she is asked to sacrifice her own brother, Orestes, revolts against the sacrificial rite itself and escapes. Indeed, Racine himself began work on an outline for an Iphigénie en Tauride.

But Racine never allows Iphigénie to make it to Tauris, for he never brought the project of the Iphigénie en Tauride to fruition, and this abortive project allows us to establish one final ordering of the three texts we have studied. Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, as we have seen, makes of Iphigenia's sacrifice a stepping-stone, albeit a sharp and painful one, to the heroic order. Killing Orders offers a fairly open protest against the sacrifice of Agnes Paciorek and V. I. But Racine's Iphigénie is based on (covertly) recognizing the nature of the sacrifice of Eriphile/Iphigénie and yet not being able to do without it, not even being able to mount an unequivocal protest against it: the function of protest in Racine's play is projected onto the character of the supposedly evil Eriphile. Might Racine's failure to complete his Iphigénie en Tauride not be an indication that he could envision, but not ultimately execute a drama which would openly revolt against sacrifice—as Iphigenia in Tauris does–and thereby put an end to the need for it?

If we began with the rather strange premise of linking Racine's play with another text by the nonreading of the Racine drama (Paretsky's unfamiliarity with Racine's Iphigénie), let us conclude with the non-writing of another Racine text, the Iphigénie en Tauride. Although Killing Orders stands in a series of complex relations with several visions of the Iphigenia myth, as we have seen, in fact V. I. is named not for the Racine character, nor even for Euripides’ heroine, but rather for the operatic Iphigenia both of whose stories—in Aulis and in Tauris–are set to music by Gluck; perhaps it is because the events in Tauris constitute Iphigenia's revolt against sacrifice that Paretsky seems to associate her heroine's naming with the Tauris story. When Racine ultimately places Iphigénie in Aulis, he is (perhaps unconsciously) saying that however happy the end of his drama might seem—and there are those who consider that Iphigénie is a tragedy which “ends well”—however much that ending might lull us into believing that Iphigénie is ultimately structured like a detective story which reaffirms order in the end, in tragedy there is no final and conclusive escape from—or taming of—disorder. By the same token, by closing—or rather not closing—this detection of a tragic intertextuality with a text that couldn't be written, I would like to suggest, once again, that not only the orderly laws of detection but also the disorderly lessons of tragedy underlie the process of intertextuality.

Principal Works

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Indemnity Only (novel) 1982

Deadlock (novel) 1984

Killing Orders (novel) 1985

Bitter Medicine (novel) 1987

Blood Shot (novel) 1988; published in England as Toxic Shock, 1988

Burn Marks (novel) 1990

Guardian Angel (novel) 1992

Tunnel Vision (novel) 1994

Windy City Blues (short stories) 1995

Ghost Country (novel) 1998

Hard Time (novel) 1999

Sara Paretsky with Monica Hileman (interview date March 1989)

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SOURCE: “Women, Mystery, and Sleuthing in the '80s,” in Sojourner: The Women's Forum, Vol. 14, No. 7, March, 1989, pp. 16-7.

[In the following interview, Paretsky discusses her choice to write in the detective genre and her character V. I. Warshawski.]

Sarah Paretsky, author of a series of mystery novels featuring detective V. I. Warshawski, is known for bringing a feminist perspective to the hard-boiled Private Eye genre. V. I., or Vic, as her friends call her, routinely handles street thugs, corporate big shots, and Chicago cops with the same wise-ass bravado. Paretsky, also one of the founding members of the organization Sisters in Crime, was recently in Boston promoting her fifth book, Blood Shot, which takes a fascinating look at environmental issues, big city Democratic-machine politics, and incest. Paretsky's previous novels, all of which bring to life in vivid detail the ethnic neighborhoods of her hometown, Chicago, include: Indemnity Only,Killing Orders,Deadlock, and Bitter Medicine.

[Monica Hileman:] What was it like getting your first V. I. novel published?

[Sarah Paretsky:] I was fortunate enough to find an agent who liked the book and was willing to take it on. It's very hard for any writer to get their first novel published, and I don't think I had it any harder than most. There was some hesitation because they said that hard-boiled stories were passé, and I think it was hard for some New York publishers to imagine that people would want to read a book that took place in Chicago. There was some feeling too about a woman detective working alone. They seemed to think people wouldn't want to read it because she didn't have a male partner. They felt it should be more like Remington Steele.

But there was this editor at Dial Press who had grown up around Chicago and was something of a feminist. She had nostalgia for Chicago and liked the character. Getting published I think, is such a crap shoot.

When you write, do you write with any particular audience in mind?

I try to write for myself. I try to write about serious issues without taking myself too seriously—things like corporate white-collar crime and the impact it has on people's lives. The type of violence that doesn't necessarily arise physically.

Your books deal with physical violence as well. I wondered if you chose mysteries as a way to say something about the physical violence that women face?

I don't think I thought about that. I wanted to write a novel, and I picked mysteries because I always read a lot of mysteries, and I was most familiar with that form.

You're now working on another V. I. novel?

Right, I'm not interested in using some other character. When I think about mysteries, V. I. is the voice that I want to tell them in. I have toyed with the idea of doing a mystery that would be told from Lotty's point of view. [Lotty is V. I.'s closest friend, a feminist doctor who runs a women's health clinic.]

V. I. is a somewhat controversial character. How do women respond to her?

Generally, I get very good responses. I did get this one letter from a woman in Connecticut who was upset at the way V. I. talked back to men and didn't get beat up. V. I. is not perfect and people get pissed at her, and why shouldn't they? I wanted to create someone who was a real person, who wasn't a Miss Marple who always behaves herself. And I wanted to create a female character who could be sexual without being evil. You know in a lot of mysteries, that's how women are presented, either as virgins or whores. In so many mysteries written by men, the sexual women are evil or dangerous.

Did you set out to make V. I. different from the typical hard-boiled detective?

I set out to write a hard-boiled detective, and I did some stereotypical things at the beginning: I made her an orphan, for example. My conception of her was that she was a typical loner, but later I began to see that that's a very uncomfortable way to live. Now that I've thought about it, I see that she gets strength from her connection to other people. In some ways she operates in a network of connections much more than the typical male detective. That network of people was something that grew up around her.

Lately, I've been thinking about how V. I. might change. I don't know whether she might ever have a permanent liaison. I don't know how that would work without it getting saccharine. Sometimes I think maybe she should have a child. It seems very clear to me that V. I. has to change somehow. In a way I think I've explored what I think I can explore with her as she is now.

One thing I like about V. I. is the way she responds to the world in a physical way. Blood Shotstarts out with women playing basketball—I don't come across that much in fiction.

You know, it's not something I've thought about real consciously. I did play baseball: one of the high points of my life was when I was picked to play third base at school. But I grew up in the era when women didn't have many opportunities to take part in sports. One of the things I think is really wonderful for young women growing up today is the participation in sports.

It's important for women to develop confidence in their bodies. I think it's encouraging to have characters like V. I. who are confident and can hold their own physically as well as verbally.

Everybody reads it differently; I just got this book put out by a couple of women called Silk Stalkings. It's sort of an encyclopedia of women in mysteries, and they really trashed V. I. because they think she's too macho. They say “Not the kind of image we need more of.”

Sure, V. I.'s macho. That's part of the fun of reading the books—having a female character who doesn't shrink from whatever comes her way.

One letter that I got that really moved me was from a woman in Japan. My books are translated into Japanese, and the woman who translates them did a story about me and V. I. that ran in one of the Tokyo dailies. She got a lot of letters from women. One of them was from a woman who works for an electronics firm there, and she said that she read V. I. every morning before she went to work because it made her feel confident that she could meet the challenges of the day.

If I met that woman I wouldn't be able to communicate with her, and yet I wrote something that affects her life. You can't ask for more than that.

You've done a lot of interviews—is there a question that you'd like to hear that people never think to ask you?

I just taped an interview with the BBC. A question that they asked which no one had asked before was, did I think mysteries were about fear and the release from fear? I didn't say this at the time, but afterwards I thought about it, and it seemed to me that the idea of creating fear in the reader is really the idea of having somebody helpless, and when that person is invariably a woman or a child, what it's doing is reinforcing the hetero-patriarchy. It's showing you that they can terrify women and children. Well, we know that and we don't need mysteries to tell us.

V. I. does get scared, but it doesn't stop her from acting. The thing about V. I. is she's an adult and she takes responsibility for her actions, and that's what we're not expected to do as women in the culture and in mystery fiction—women get in trouble and are rescued. V. I. gets in trouble and she has to fix it.

Mary A. Lowry (review date July 1989)

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SOURCE: “Crime Time,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. VI, Nos. 10-11, July, 1989, p. 41.

[In the following excerpt, Lowry praises Paretsky's Blood Shot, contending that the novel contains not only good writing and good characterizations but a believable plot and a satisfying ending.]

As good to relax with on a winter evening as on a summer vacation, murder mysteries are a great antidote for the blahs. The best mystery writers tell a good tale, solve a puzzle and provide a satisfying solution. A recent Publishers Weekly article documents what booksellers have known for years: Mystery novel sales are on the upswing, and women authors write a good share of those mysteries.

Gone are the unobtrusive Miss Marples and Miss Silvers of yesteryear, gone the wimpy “heroines” who bumble into a solution or need a man to rescue them. Today's women are professional, independent and resourceful. They are Private Investigators, policewomen and amateur detectives. A growing number of Lesbian detective novels are being published by both the women's and the traditional mystery presses. Most of these detectives are independent but not solitary, tough but not superwomen. Increasingly they are dealing with daily issues of relationships, family ties and women's concerns while they deal with death and deceit.

One of my favorite detectives is Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski. Working in Chicago and specializing in financial crimes, V(Victoria) I(Iphigenia) went to law school before becoming a Private Investigator. She is intelligent, quick and hot-tempered. In Blood Shot, V. I. goes to a twenty-year reunion of her old high school championship basketball team. There she is hired by Caroline Djiak, the brat next door from her childhood, to find Caroline's father. This sets V. I. down the road into the world of industrial pollution and corrupt politicians and doctors. Warshawski feels the pull of loyalty to her old neighbors in South Chicago where “you expected life to be tough” and people went to the doctor only when things got really serious. Even though Caroline and others try to dissuade V. I. from unraveling the medical/industrial puzzle, her stubbornness and curiosity drive her deeper into the literal and metaphorical muck of greed and contempt for human life.

Paretsky's writing is confident and sure. V. I.'s friendship deepens with her old friend Dr. Lotty Herschel, who runs a clinic and offers her tart advice and support. Her attitude toward Caroline-as-brat changes as they both struggle to forge a new relationship as grown-up friends. Blood Shot has it all—good writing, good characters (even the villains are compellingly real), plus a believable mystery with a satisfying ending that acknowledges that solutions are often beginnings of a bigger struggle. …

Further Reading

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Diehl, Digby. A review of Tunnel Vision.Playboy 41, No. 7 (July 1994): 34.

A review of Tunnel Vision.

Goheen, Diane. A review of Tunnel Vision.School Library Journal 41, No. 1 (January 1995): 146.

A review of Paretsky's novel Tunnel Vision.

Jones, Kathleen. A review of Tunnel Vision.Ms. Magazine 5, No. 1 (July-August 1994): 78.

A review of Tunnel Vision.

Melton, Emily. A review of Windy City Blues.Booklist 92, No. 1 (1 September 1995): 6.

Review of Paretsky's Windy City Blues.

Nolan, Tom. A review of Guardian Angel.The Wall Street Journal (17 April 1992): A9.

Review of Paretsky's Guardian Angel.

Shapiro, Laura. A review of Tunnel Vision.Newsweek 124, No. 1 (4 July 1994): 67.

A review of Tunnel Vision.

A review of Windy City Blues.Publisher's Weekly 242, No. 35 (28 August 1995): 106.

Review of Windy City Blues.

“Sara Paretsky: What I'm Reading.” Entertainment Weekly No. 185–86 (27 August 1993): 105.

Brief article on Paretsky.

Additional coverage of Paretsky's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 30; Bestsellers, Vol. 1990: 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 125, 129; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 59; DISCovering Authors Modules: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; and DISCovering Authors 3.0.

Maureen T. Reddy (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “The Feminist Counter-Tradition in Crime: Cross, Grafton, Paretsky, and Wilson,” in The Cunning Craft: Original Essays on Detective Fiction and Contemporary Literary Theory, edited by Ronald Walker and June Frazer, Western Illinois University, 1990, pp. 174-87.

[In the following essay, Reddy analyzes how Amanda Cross's A Trap for Fools, Sue Grafton's ‘F’ Is for Fugitive, Barbara Wilson's The Dog Collar Murders, and Paretsky's Blood Shot all use feminism to redefine the crime genre.]

When Carolyn Heilbrun published her first mystery novel under the name Amanda Cross in 1964, she began the revival of the feminist crime novel, a literary form that had been moribund since the publication in 1935 of Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night.In the Last Analysis, the first Amanda Cross book, appeared just a year after Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique brought feminist issues back to public attention, following Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex by nearly two decades. Heilbrun was doubly important in what has come to be known as the “second wave” of feminism: as Carolyn Heilbrun, she produced some of the earliest and most influential feminist literary criticism, while as Amanda Cross she brought a feminist perspective to the crime novel, significantly altering the genre. Feminist literary criticism, feminism as a social movement, and feminist crime novels have grown up together, so to speak. Just as feminist literary criticism challenges the traditional assumptions of the discipline of literary studies, so too does the feminist crime novel challenge the conventions of crime fiction. Feminist crime novels are best understood as constituting a new genre, less part of an existing tradition than a distinct counter-tradition. As this counter-tradition develops, expands, and deepens, numerous shared features and variations on those features become discernible.

In this essay I focus on four recent additions to established series—Sara Paretsky's Blood Shot (1988), Amanda Cross's A Trap for Fools (1989), Sue Grafton's “F” Is for Fugitive (1989), and Barbara Wilson's The Dog Collar Murders (1989)—in order to assess the current condition of the feminist crime novel, its characteristic preoccupations, and its new directions. Each of these four novels fits within the genre of feminist crime fiction, but also belongs to a particular sub-genre: Paretsky's and Grafton's series focus on professional private investigators, Cross's on an academic amateur, and Wilson's on a lesbian amateur. Exceptionally popular among mystery readers, these four writers have also been singled out for critical attention and praise in both the popular and the academic press.

Although the four series are at quite different stages of development—A Trap for Fools is the ninth novel featuring Kate Fansler in twenty-five years, while “F” Is for Fugitive is the sixth Kinsey Millhone novel since 1982, Blood Shot the fifth V. I. Warshawski novel since 1982, and The Dog Collar Murders just the third Pam Nilsen book since 1984—all are late enough in their respective series so that the detectives’ characters are well established. This is not to say that Cross, Grafton, Paretsky, and Wilson fail to develop their detectives’ characters further in these novels, but simply that the novels build upon foundations established in earlier books in the series. Cross's Kate Fansler, for instance, has worked through crises in confidence and gone through a revolution in her (and her creator's) conception of her role as a woman professor and detective in earlier novels. Similarly, Paretsky has explored her hero's reasons for working as a detective, her family background, and her professional experience in the four preceding Warshawski novels, while Grafton's “A” through “E” books provide information on Kinsey's personal history and her current pared-down lifestyle. Wilson detailed Pam's coming out as a lesbian in Murder in the Collective (1984) and explored some of the personal and political implications of that choice in Sisters of the Road (1986). At this particular moment in all four series, the detectives are presented as having achieved some level of self-acceptance and as having developed strategies for negotiating their social worlds. Concomitantly, the authors have attained critical and commercial success sufficiently to justify assuming a readership familiar with their earlier work. Finally, that readership presumably has acquired some degree of familiarity and comfort with the detectives.

The plot of each novel, like most other crime fiction, follows the progress of an investigation, initially galvanized by a murder and propelled forward by the detective's (and the reader's) desire to discover the author of the crime. However, the investigation of all but “F” Is for Fugitive rapidly shifts into a larger, explicitly feminist investigation of social conditions under patriarchy. With the exception of Grafton's criminal, each of the murderers turns out to be linked in some fairly direct way to an institution that oppresses women; the murder is shown to have been precipitated by the murderer's fear of exposure of wrongdoing and consequent loss of status and power within that institution. Grafton's murderer is a woman who is excluded from these institutions because of gender, with this exclusion sparking in her a consuming rage that finally leads her to kill. In all these novels, feminism is presented as the only frame of reference adequate to understanding and critiquing both the particular crime and the larger social issue, and as the only ideology capable of offering an alternative to the corrupt social system from which the crimes arise. The four authors thus adopt a stance akin to that recently articulated by feminist standpoint theorists: “a standpoint is an engaged vision of the world opposed and superior to dominant ways of thinking. … [A] feminist standpoint is a superior vision produced by the political conditions and distinctive work of women.” Feminism, then, is accorded a privileged position in the four narratives. Feminism is the source of each detective's authority and therefore of her power, while each murderer's corrupt definition and destructive use of power is rooted in patriarchal, capitalist ideology, which is seen finally to lack legitimate authority.

Paretsky, Grafton, Cross, and Wilson root their novels in the insights afforded by a feminist standpoint and construct their plots within the framework of a feminist critique of society. Like other feminists, the four authors understand that all knowledge is constructed and contextual, and that all reading is gendered. Wilson may assume an almost exclusively feminist readership, given that her detective is a lesbian and her novels are published as trade paperbacks by a small press (Seal) and sold mainly by independent booksellers. Grafton's, Cross's, and Paretsky's novels, however, are published by large commercial houses, first in hardback and then in mass-market paperback editions, and sold both by independents and by the large chains. I doubt that any of the three assumes her entire audience will be feminist. Despite these differences, by writing as feminists and by creating feminist detectives, all four novelists teach their readers to read as feminists, to look on the world—at least temporarily—from a feminist perspective.

Elsewhere, I have argued that Cross and others teach their readers how to read as women, either by focusing on the female detective's thought processes or by taking the reader through a form of consciousness raising. Work by Carol Gilligan, Nancy Chodorow, and Jessica Benjamin suggests that women's socialization, particularly early relations with a mother who acts as primary caretaker, results in an understanding of the self and of the self's relation to others considerably different from men's. Historically, though, male ways of thinking have been dominant in society. Taken together, Gilligan, Chodorow, and Benjamin offer an analysis of gender differences that centers on modes of relatedness, with men tending to define themselves through individuation and separation, valuing autonomy over connections with others, and perceiving relationships in terms of rights and rules, and women tending instead to define themselves in relation to others, valuing interpersonal connections over autonomy, and perceiving relationships in terms of balancing needs. Given these characteristic gender differences, one might expect that a woman detective would understand her role quite differently than would a male detective, and that she would have difficulty with traditional notions of truth and justice. These expectations are in fact borne out in feminist crime novels. The four novels I discuss here problematize the conventions of crime fiction, operating as practical applications of feminist standpoint theory.

Feminist crime writers accept few of the givens of traditional detective fiction. By calling into question that which is taken for granted in other crime novels—the value of detecting, the knowability of the truth, the detective's commitment to solving the crime, the reader's interest in deciphering clues and solving the puzzle, the detective's superior authority, the primacy of reason—feminist writers push readers to question their own assumptions about the genre. The detective's motives are always more centrally at issue in feminist crime novels than they are in conventional mysteries. Whereas nonfeminist writers usually assign their detectives some version of the common motive of commitment to order, justice, and truth, feminist crime writers generally problematize both the universality and the desirability of these abstractions. There is no single, universal truth, these writers suggest; rather, truth is always relative, dependent on perspective and on circumstances. Order, for instance, is frequently presented as the source of crimes against women and therefore as the antithesis of real justice. Further, there may often be higher values than abstract truth or justice, such as preserving lives and relationships.

Consequently, the most commonly used motive for a feminist detective's entering into an investigation is a very personal stake of some sort: the detective detects in order to protect a friend or at the request of a friend. Even those characters who are professional investigators, such as Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski, usually are assigned motives beyond the requirements of the job. In Blood Shot, for instance, V. I. begins the case at the request of an old friend. Only Kinsey Millhone acts strictly as a paid professional; at the beginning of “F” Is for Fugitive a man hires her to clear his son, who has been arrested for a murder committed sixteen years before. At least initially, Kinsey has no connection beyond employer/employee with the family whose lives she enters. In the first two Pam Nilsen novels, Barbara Wilson carefully constructed compelling personal motives for Pam's investigations, but in The Dog Collar Murders the reader is left to puzzle out Pam's motives. Actually, in this book Pam herself isn't sure why she investigates. Her twin sister suggests that Pam should involve herself because “we know for sure the police are going to make a botch-up of the whole thing.” Ultimately, Pam's motive seems to be compounded of curiosity, boredom, and desire to divert her thoughts away from problems with her lover. This novel lacks the sense of urgency Wilson artfully creates in the two earlier Nilsen novels; I think a major reason for the calmer, cooler tone of this book is Pam's unconvincing motivation. Both the author and her character seem much more interested in exploring the various feminist positions in the pornography debate than they are in investigating the murder of anti-porn activist Loie Marsh, resulting in a lack of plot balance that seriously undermines the novel.

The detective's authority—indeed, the nature of authority itself—becomes a subject of inquiry in most feminist crime novels. Conventional crime novels treat the (male) detective as the single authority capable of satisfactorily and fully explaining the meaning of events and encourage readers to accept this authority figure's right to define truth. Women's authority is always in question, though, and it is therefore always a struggle for a woman to establish herself as an authority in any area, as authority is popularly associated with masculinity. Grafton alone among these four novelists treats authority as relatively uncomplicated, with her narrator/protagonist presenting authority as a matter of knowing enough to be able to write “the proper ending to the tale” of violent death she is hired to investigate. The wording here—“the proper ending”—suggests some ambiguity, though: “proper” by what standards and in relation to what other possible endings? Most feminist crime writers doubly problematize authority: on the one hand, they question the entire concept of authority, while on the other they assert the female detective's authority. Traditionally, authority—the power to judge, the right to command, the power to persuade based on knowledge or experience—inheres in the masculine role, with that role part of a social structure based on male superiority. From a feminist standpoint, authority based on such a structure is necessarily illegitimate. Feminist crime writers lay bare this illegitimacy and offer different bases of authority, most often an understanding rooted in relatedness, empathy, and care. The feminist detective does not occupy a masculine position; on the contrary, she establishes her authority on entirely different grounds.

The question of authority is broached in A Trap for Fools before the novel proper begins, with the entire text of Rudyard Kipling's “If” serving as epigraph for the book. Although deadly serious in tone, Kipling's poem—from which the novel's title also derives—is transformed into bitter irony through its context: it is impossible to encounter this poem between the covers of a feminist crime novel and read it “straight,” which requires reading it as a man. The poem consists of a series of conditions, beginning with “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” all of which share a single conclusion: “Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, / And—which is more—you'll be a Man, my son!” Cross's novel undercuts both the poem's construction of gender and its conventionally gendered notion of authority. The novel suggests that Kipling mistook a condition for a conclusion: if you are a man (more accurately, a white man), then “Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it.” Kate Fansler does meet most of the poem's conditions, but she can never “be a Man,” and therefore “the Earth and everything that's in it” cannot be hers. At novel's end, Kate does get some power in the world, but she does so only by forfeiting legitimate feminist authority.

Power, in fact, is one reason that Kate agrees to become involved in the murder investigation in A Trap for Fools. Asked by the administrators of her university to investigate the murder of a widely detested professor, Kate at first refuses. The lone woman administrator, Edna Hoskins, persuades Kate to change her answer by offering to share information and therefore power with her: “my colleagues feel that to give away information is to give away power; I believe in an institution where shared information leads to shared power and responsibility.” The first bit of power/information Edna offers is the fact that the police suspect a friend of Kate's, a black professor named Humphrey Edgerton. Kate pushes on with the investigation in order to clear her friend—a familiar motive—but also to learn how the university really works, which by the administrators’ definition means acquiring power. Cross gives Kate another reason to pursue the case when a student Kate likes becomes the murderer's second victim. Earlier in the novel, Kate thinks that “it was easier to seek wholeheartedly the murderer of someone you have liked, someone whose loss is evident, a general diminution of the humane”; seeking Arabella's killer is in that sense easier than seeking Professor Adams', although, as it happens, the same person committed both crimes.

The criminals in these novels hold powerful positions in institutions that oppress women: a fundamentalist church, a prestigious university, government, organized crime, and big business (with these last three portrayed as very nearly identical). The authors demonstrate that their crimes are neither aberrational nor violations of order, but extreme expressions of the institutions’ values, logical outgrowths of an order built on the oppression of women. The criminals share, indeed act upon, the true values of the institutions they represent; Cross, Paretsky, and Wilson show that these values—money and power over others’ lives—are dangerous to women and to other living things. Paretsky most graphically represents the interrelationship of social institutions, including the family, in a corrupt system of power, first by creating a conspiracy among representatives of business, government, and organized crime, and then by revealing one man to be a child molester, an abusive father and husband, a dishonest businessman, and a corrupt city father. This character, Art Jurshak, symbolizes patriarchy itself.

Just as the criminals in these novels may be used as representatives of the institutions of which they are a part and as figures for patriarchal capitalism in general, so too their victims serve symbolic functions as well. In The Dog Collar Murders, the victims, Loie and Nicky, are lesbian feminists who refuse to maintain silence about their experience and who insist on the authority of that experience. The victims in Blood Shot are Nancy, who works for a non-profit neighborhood environmental agency, and Louisa, who has been doubly victimized, first by sexual abuse and then by industrial pollution. While the murdered Nancy represents women who directly threaten masculine control, the slowly dying Louisa represents both silent female victims of abuse and workers, both male and female, who lack control over their working conditions and who involuntarily sacrifice their lives for the sake of corporate profit.

Cross's victims in A Trap for Fools fall into two distinct categories: an utterly unsympathetic white male professor and a far more sympathetic black woman student. Both, however, collude in their own victimization by attempting to gain power through blackmail, Professor Adams for the “wrong” reasons (personal power over others and personal financial gain) and Arabella Jordan for the “right” ones (greater political power for minority students). The victims’ motives thus are interestingly gendered, but their common fate suggests that accepting the traditional basis of power—secret knowledge—necessarily destroys, regardless of motive. Cross's criminals have similarly gendered motives: Vice-President Noble embezzles and then kills in order to amass power in the university, while Edna accepts money in exchange for silence in order to help her ailing husband. Cross suggests that Edna's and Arabella's motives are less reprehensible than Adams’ and Noble's, but portrays their actions as both self-destructive and destructive to their communities.

Cross's Edna is a victim of the misogynistic organization of power in the university for which she works. At several points in A Trap for Fools, we are reminded of Edna's isolation in an otherwise exclusively masculine administration. In earlier Kate Fansler novels and in her scholarly work, Cross/Heilbrun has emphasized the importance of women's entering male-dominated institutions in large numbers if they are to avoid being “co-opted as honorary members of a male club.” Edna's isolation ultimately leads her to act in a way contrary both to her original feminist principles and to her own best interest: she is co-opted into a male club in which money, power, and secrecy are highly valued.

Grafton's criminal is also a victim: a daughter in a family that, like the wider society, most values sons and a plain woman in a world in which pleasing men is the crucial test of femininity and the surest road to social success. Ann kills three people (all women), sets up the murder of a fourth, and allows her brother to go to prison for a crime she committed, all so that she can possess the man she desires. “F” Is for Fugitive suggests that being an unrewarded good daughter and an ordinary “old maid” literally made Ann crazy. By accepting dominant social values instead of recognizing their falseness and repudiating them, Ann colludes in her own victimization, with this collusion graphically represented at the novel's end when Ann, struggling with her father for a gun, actually shoots off her own foot. Ann blames her father for her crimes—“You were never there for me … you were never there,” she sobs to him—and Kinsey accepts this analysis, linking Ann to other women in the novel's last few lines. She mentions several women, and then says:

None of us had survived the wounds our fathers inflicted all those years ago. Did he love us? How would we ever know? He was gone and he'd never again be what he was to us in all his haunting perfection. If love is what injures us, how can we heal?

The novel implies an answer to its own final question through the striking differences between Ann and Kinsey, particularly Kinsey's rejection of the anti-feminist values Ann accepts.

At some level, crime novels are always about secrets, about uncovering what is at first hidden, but secrecy itself becomes a central theme in The Dog Collar Murders,A Trap for Fools, and Blood Shot. The murderers in these novels act to preserve secrets, with those secrets always about sex and/or money: Wilson's Sonya kills in order to shield her past participation in porn films from public knowledge, as disclosure of her secret would threaten her livelihood as a Christian activist and speaker. Cross's ironically named Noble kills when he fears that his embezzlement of university funds will be made public. Paretsky's Jurshak, Dresberg, and Humboldt arrange and carry out one murder and plan several others in order to keep their insurance fraud secret, with Jurshak having the additional motive of hiding his past sexual abuse of his niece. The three novelists further suggest that secrecy is crucial for business-as-usual to be carried on in most institutions. Keeping silent, then, supports these institutions and, directly or indirectly, destroys women. This analysis is clearest in A Trap for Fools, in which Arabella becomes the murderer's second victim when she keeps his secret. The three novels offer insights similar to Adrienne Rich's in “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” and testify to the importance of breaking silence in altering the corrupt power base of the patriarchal order. Rich points out that “lying is done with words, and also with silence”: “Patriarchal lying has manipulated women both through falsehood and through silence. Facts we needed have been withheld from us. False witness has been borne against us.”

The theme of silence and secrecy aiding corruption and opposing women's best interests works itself out in different ways in these novels, but is most complexly rendered in Blood Shot, where family silence about Art Jurshak's rape of Louisa is the enabling condition for his rise to power and his abuse of that power. Jurshak's entire life is built on lies, secrets, and silence. Like virtually all feminist crime novels—including “F” Is for Fugitive, in which Ann's crimes result from her acceptance of traditional ideas about women—these three link individual crimes to a wider social context, particularly to important feminist issues. As the detective investigates the crime, she also investigates the larger issue. In The Dog Collar Murders, the victims are women on either side of the pornography debate, a lesbian-feminist anti-porn activist and a lesbian-feminist S/M advocate. Pam, who as the novel opens hasn't thought much about the porn issue and is unsure of her own position, gets caught up in the debate. In A Trap for Fools, the central social issue, apart from the general theme of academe as corrupt, is racism, especially relations among white and black women. Cross here focuses on what has become in many ways the feminist issue: if feminism is to survive as a movement, white women and women of color must find common ground in order to work together on issues of mutual concern, yet the barriers to a cross-racial sisterhood are enormous and may sometimes appear insurmountable. Paretsky's Blood Shot foregrounds the issue of child sexual abuse, linking it with the problem of industrial pollution and effectively showing how precisely the same forces are responsible for both.

Although the connection between the particular crime on which the plot turns and the larger social issue with which the novel deals may seem most tenuous in Blood Shot, the novel actually quite successfully integrates the criminal investigation and the analysis of the larger social issue. Wilson, in contrast, runs into difficulties that Paretsky gracefully avoids. The major problems in Wilson's The Dog Collar Murders arise, ironically enough, from a virtue: the author's determination to render the pornography issue in feminism in its real complexity and ambiguity. Unfortunately, Wilson is not able to discover a dramatically satisfying way to conduct this exploration; further, it is difficult for readers to care deeply about Loie's demise when the detective herself seems detached, unaffected. Finally, the solution to the case—the answer to who killed Loie and later Nicky, and why—turns out not to depend on any of the subtleties of the porn wars, a fact which is liable to leave the reader wondering whether wading through multiple pages of exposition was necessary at all.

Roughly thirty pages of The Dog Collar Murders (chapters 3-5) are given over to reportage of a sexuality conference, with this material evidently intended to provide a framework for Pam's investigation. The experience of reading this section of the novel too often feels like attending an actual conference, especially because Wilson invents two fairly lengthy speeches, one examining why porn has become such a central issue among feminists and the other, by Loie, advocating censorship of porn. Neither speech is especially dynamic, nor does this section offer truly fresh insights into either the anti-pornography movement itself or porn's position as a major feminist issue. Loie turns up dead at the end of this section, and it later develops that an important clue to why she was murdered is embedded in her speech; nevertheless, the conference report, placed as it is quite early in the book, derails the novel, which never gets all the way back on track.

The murderer in The Dog Collar Murders turns out to be Sonya, a right-wing Christian anti-porn activist who killed Loie and Nicky to avoid public disclosure of her youthful participation in porn films. In a pattern used by other feminist crime writers who create female criminals, the murderer is a male-identified woman who acts on masculine motives. Wilson concludes the crime narrative of The Dog Collar Murders in a highly conventional way: Pam does not figure out the murderer's identity, instead narrowing the suspects down to a short list and then inviting all of them to a gathering at which she intends the murderer will be revealed. Sonya upsets Pam's plan by turning up early and endangering Pam's life. Ultimately, the police arrive and arrest Sonya, hauling her off for what we must assume will be trial and punishment. There's nothing especially feminist about this denouement. Even the conventions that other feminist crime novels, including Wilson's own first two, employ only to turn on their heads—the detective's failure to solve the puzzle and the threat to the detective's life, for instance—are used more straightforwardly here.

Wilson has Pam plan the meeting in a spirit of parody—as narrator, Pam asks, “If Hercule Poirot could carry it off, why couldn't I?”—but the novel, as distinct from the character's thoughts and actions, does not parody the convention. Pam cannot “carry it off” because she is not all-knowing, not the single voice of authority Poirot is. After she has planned the meeting, Pam tells another character that were she ever to write a book, it “would be full of dead ends, tentative conclusions, backpedaling, outright wrong assumptions. I no sooner have one idea than another sounds better.” This is a fair description of Pam's investigative techniques, but also of Wilson's narrative technique in Murder in the Collective and Sisters of the Road; in fact, Pam's tolerance of ambiguity and Wilson's refusal to make her detective in the image of masculine authority figures contributes to the freshness of those novels. The Dog Collar Murders, however, founders at the end by removing all of Pam's authority and power.

Perhaps, though, that is part of a deliberate strategy, as surely is Wilson's decision to impair Pam's ability to fight back by burdening her with a baby, her three-month-old niece. Just as the murderer advances on her, Pam thinks, “We'd never discussed what to do in my self-defense class if you happened to have a thirteen-week-old baby on your hands.” However, women do often have children on their hands, and responsibility for children's safety certainly often impedes women's ability to defend themselves, both literally and metaphorically. Pam tries to escape, but then fights when she has no other choice, gaining strength from her determination to protect her niece: “suddenly my fear passed and I felt terribly angry. No one was going to hurt Antonia if I could help it.” Two women chance upon the fight and intercede, helping Pam.

Paretsky, Grafton, and Cross also endanger their detectives, but their handling of that motif differs considerably from Wilson's in The Dog Collar Murders. Cross has Kate brazen out a threat and just walk away, counting on the killer's cowardice and on a male ally's bravery to protect her. As in earlier Kinsey Millhone novels, Grafton portrays Kinsey as at ease with guns and reliant on a gun to equalize power between criminal and detective. At one point in “F” Is for Fugitive, Kinsey picks up her gun, “loving the smooth, cold weight of it.” However, Kinsey very seldom uses her gun in the series and, when she does, the gun sometimes proves ineffectual. In “E” Is for Evidence, for instance, Kinsey's purse and a toilet tank lid are better weapons against an attacker than is her gun. When Kinsey is threatened by Ann in “F” Is for Fugitive, she is taken by surprise and cannot get to her gun, instead using words to forestall Ann's attack. Although we see Kinsey physically fight off one attacker in “F” Is for Fugitive, this novel is far less violent than is Paretsky's Blood Shot. True to the hard-boiled part of her ancestry, Paretsky's Warshawski gets beaten, kidnapped and left for dead by thugs, attacked by a gun-wielding gangster, and threatened by a billionaire businessman. She fights off the thugs and survives their attack by using her wits, shoots the gangster, and calls the businessman's bluff. Paretsky's portrayal of violence implicitly questions the role of violence in hard-boiled novels. Male hard-boiled detectives may express distaste for violence, but their creators use violence to underscore the detective's masculinity. In Blood Shot, as in her earlier novels, Paretsky shows that violence is neither fixed in meaning nor an indication of masculinity. V. I. certainly cannot prove her femininity through violence, nor does violence establish her as masculine. Further, violence is always her last choice, and is frequently less effective than other forms of resistance. V. I. uses violence only when no other strategy will preserve her own or another character's life.

While the criminals in these novels generally act to acquire and then to preserve power as conventionally defined, the detectives usually act to protect relationships. Indeed, the primary shared value encoded by these texts is a form of preservative love, and the detectives’ morality consistently places concern for relationships ahead of such abstractions as order and justice. At the end of Blood Shot, V. I. rejects a businessman's attempt to buy her silence not simply on the grounds that assent would be morally wrong according to a hard and fast code, but because it would damage others she loves. Instead of abrogating to herself the authority to speak for others and to determine what is right for them, V. I. allows her friend Lotty to participate in the decision. Briefly, the situation is that Humboldt trumps up a charge of medical malpractice via sexual abuse against Lotty, offering to have the charges dropped and to give V. I. a substantial sum of money if she will give him the notebooks that contain evidence of his company's wrongdoing. V. I. contacts Lotty, explains the situation, and allows Lotty to speak for herself—acknowledges, in other words, Lotty's right to control her own life and to assert her own authority.

Relationships, familial and otherwise, are an important theme in feminist crime novels. Feminist crime writers depict their detectives’ struggles to create new forms of relatedness outside the boundaries of patriarchal nuclear families, a striking departure from the solitariness of male hard-boiled detectives. The detectives seek deep and lasting connections while remaining wary of falling into roles that replicate conventional feminine family positions: daughter, sister, wife, mother, all defined primarily in relation to men, especially husband/father. Grafton's Kinsey enjoys being alone, but she also has several ongoing friendships, most notably one with her elderly landlord, Henry Pitts. At the end of “E” Is for Evidence (1988), Kinsey's apartment is destroyed by a bomb; as “F” Is for Fugitive begins, she is staying in a room of Henry's house and beginning to feel some “emotional claustrophobia.” In earlier books Kinsey has worried that Henry may want to play a fatherly role toward her, but in this more recent novel she has a sudden flash of insight that Henry actually wants to mother her. As the rest of the novel suggests, mothering is surely less damaging than fathering and may provide a comparatively benign model of relatedness, particularly if it is nontraditional mothering, outside patriarchal control. Wilson's The Dog Collar Murders opens with Pam directly addressing the issue of feminist relationships. We see her discomfort and downright anger with her sister's decision to marry, as this legalizing of a relationship is denied lesbians, including Pam. During the course of the novel, Pam tries to figure out what form she wants her relationship with her lover Hadley to take, determined to avoid simply replicating heterosexual conventions. Similarly, Paretsky's V. I. grapples with the question of what she truly owes her own friends and her mother's friends, and how she can reconcile her need for independence with her equal need for interdependence. At one point in Blood Shot, Lotty tells V. I. that she has been behaving irresponsibly, insisting on a degree of independence that threatens their friendship: “You involved me in your problems, and then you disappeared without a word. That isn't independence—that is thoughtless cruelty. … [If] you want to be friends, you cannot behave with such callous disregard for my feelings for you.” V. I. accepts Lotty's criticism, realizing that not all expressions of need are necessarily diminutions of her independence and that not all forms of dependence threaten the self. Ms. Chigwell, an older woman who has always accepted the notion that women's loyalties must lie with their fathers, husbands, or brothers, is inspired by V. I.'s example to shake free of her demanding brother and to begin, belatedly, her own life.

Although Cross asserts through Kate that women's friendships are of the greatest importance and demonstrates through Edna that the absence of such friendships may be deeply destructive, she fails to portray these friendships with any convincing degree of complexity or intensity. While Paretsky and Wilson both invent important women friends for their detectives, with several of these friendships carried throughout their series, the only ongoing intimate relationship Cross invents for Kate is with Reed Amhearst, her husband. In each of her recent novels, most notably No Word from Winifred (1986), Cross creates at least one supposedly intense and satisfying friendship between Kate and another woman, but none of these friends turns up in any other Cross novel. These friendships have no history and no future; therefore, the various comments in Cross's novels on the centrality of women's friendships in Kate's life have a hollow sound. Cross keeps claiming that such friendships are valuable, but never shows that they are. In A Trap for Fools, for instance, Kate spends a day with a novelist, Penelope Constable, at the end of which they feel “a sense of having known each other forever”:

They had covered every topic from contemporary fiction through the new opportunities of women's friendships and the perhaps concomitant greater impatience of women with stilted men, ending up with the state of England's economy and the extent to which it resembled the two nations of Disraeli's time.

This sense of closeness and community is temporary; Kate and Penelope share not a friendship, nor even the beginning of a friendship, but a day out of time, essentially separate from the rest of their lives.

Cross also depicts Kate as concerned about the distance between black and white women, their mutual mistrust, but this concern largely takes the form of an aggrieved belief that she has been misjudged. Outrageously, Kate blames black women as a group for making her uncomfortable. Regretting that “she had no black woman friend as close as Humphrey,” Kate thinks, “These women seemed to have condemned her in advance to an eliteness that her presence, apart from her actions, seemed inevitably to bespeak.” Kate's position, sadly, is one too widely shared by white feminists, but Cross presents it uncritically. The lack of irony in this passage suggests that Cross herself believes Kate's attitude to be reasonable, instead of recognizing it as a problem.

This blind spot regarding black and white women's relationships extends to most relationships among women, of whatever race, in Cross's novels. At midpoint in A Trap for Fools, Kate expresses love for Edna: “what she felt for Edna was certainly love; it was friendship, and devotion, and collegiality, but it was also love.” At the end of the novel, though, we learn that Edna has betrayed Kate, that at the very moment Kate was realizing she loved Edna, Edna was playing Kate for a fool. Because Edna is the only woman in the novel with whom Kate has an ongoing relationship, this betrayal acquires symbolic significance. Ultimately, Kate can depend only on men; the racist male security guard turns out to be a better ally than any woman. A Trap for Fools suggests that all women's friendships are ephemeral at best, sometimes even dangerous, in any case not to be relied upon, an impression I assume Cross did not set out to create and one that undercuts the explicit assertions about friendship in the novel.

Feminism serves the double function of standpoint and theme in all four of these novels, with three of the authors interested in the diversity of feminism. Feminism is a more muted theme in Grafton's novel, where it provides an alternative to the destructive, masculinist values the novel more directly explores. One theme running through A Trap for Fools is feminism's failure to unite black and white women. In The Dog Collar Murders, Wilson examines other divisions among feminists, asking a series of interrelated questions: what, exactly, do women owe each other? should all feminists refuse to participate in social institutions that bar some of our sisters? to what issues should the feminist movement give its attention? is feminism still viable as a movement, or has it broken down irretrievably into numerous factions? Paretsky's Blood Shot asks similar questions, focusing most directly on what women's responsibilities to each other comprise. None of these authors, or their characters, can fully answer the questions they raise, except in the most tentative, temporary ways, but answering the questions “properly” is beside the point: the important thing is to ask the questions, to encourage readers to think about them.

The authors’ interest in asking questions and their willingness to entertain multiple possible answers contribute to the three novels’ open-endedness, their refusal of conventional closure. The simpler puzzle of the murder mystery—who did what to whom and why—gets solved in A Trap for Fools,“F” Is for Fugitive,The Dog Collar Murders, and Blood Shot, but the deeper mysteries and the larger questions remain open. The detectives end one or several criminal careers, but the larger social problems the crimes represent are not solved: order is not restored, justice is only minimally served, truth continues to be elusive. Of the three, A Trap for Fools ends most disturbingly, with Kate using the tactics of the oppressors to obtain reparations for the oppressed. She tells her provost that she has “learned a certain amount about blackmail” from her investigation, and then proceeds to blackmail him: in exchange for her cooperation (silence) in keeping the story of embezzling out of the papers, Kate demands that the university establish three large scholarships for poor students in the name of the murdered black student, Arabella. Through exerting this illegitimate form of power, Kate loses her legitimate power. In the final chapter, Kate ceases to speak and to act with feminist authority, abandoning a feminist standpoint and operating instead within the system of power the novel has shown to be corrupt. Like Arabella before her, Kate acts for the “right” reasons, yet can only lose. In another sense, though, Kate wins: she does succeed in making the institution a tiny bit more responsive to the needs of those it usually excludes. Cross implies that all change must take place within existing institutions, and must therefore be incremental; she offers not a vision of revolution, but a realistic description of evolution.

The final full chapter of “F” Is for Fugitive ends, as I have shown, with a question already answered by the novel. However, Grafton also appends an epilogue in the form of a summary report of the case. This epilogue ends with a comment on her relationship with Henry, her motherly landlord:

I find that I'm looking at Henry Pitts differently these days. He may be the closest thing to a father I'll ever have. Instead of viewing him with suspicion, I think I'll enjoy him for the time we have left, whatever that may be.

The “closest thing to a father” Kinsey has, then, is a male surrogate mother. This conclusion underscores the importance of reinventing relationships, of finding forms of relatedness that avoid the dangerous potentialities of traditional roles.

Both Blood Shot and The Dog Collar Murders end hopefully, in parodies of familiar rituals. Traditionally, women's novels end in the heroine's marriage (or death), while crime novels end in the restoration of order. Paretsky and Wilson revise both genres, “writing beyond the ending” of both romance and crime. In the last chapter of Blood Shot, V. I. and Caroline, her surrogate little sister, finally manage to achieve an adult understanding. Caroline says that she hopes V. I. will always be her sister, and V. I.'s reply constitutes the book's final line: “Till death do us part, kid.” This parody of the marriage service and of hard-boiled language (“kid”) resonates deeply, underscoring the novel's theme of women's friendships: sisterhood indeed provides a better, more egalitarian model of relatedness than does marriage, not to mention more freedom for women. This promise of sisterhood does not give the sense of finality, of closure and enclosure, found in novels that end in marriage. Wilson uses a similar tactic in the final pages of The Dog Collar Murders, which describe a “houses-warming” Pam and Hadley give. After deciding to abandon all existing models for relationships and to use instead their own needs as a guide, they buy a duplex that will allow them to live both separately and together. Wilson points out the link between the wedding of her first chapter and the houses-warming of her last through Hadley's remark that “this is the nearest we'll get to a wedding.” Pam agrees, thinking

It was a little bit like the wedding reception two months ago. Not as many old neighbors and relatives, but more of the people we counted as friends and family.

This “houses-warming” revises the traditional ritual of the wedding in a way that parallels these writers’ revision of the conventions of crime fiction: both are counter-traditions, suited to feminist stories and feminist lives.

Guy Szuberla (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Paretsky, Turow, and the Importance of Symbolic Ethnicity,” in MidAmerica XVIII: The Yearbook of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature, edited by David D. Anderson, Midwestern Press, 1991, pp. 124-35.

[In the following essay, Szuberla discusses the importance of ethnic identity to the character Rusty Sabich in Scott Turow's book Presumed Innocent and to protagonist V. I. Warshawski in Sara Paretsky's detective novels.]

“I really thought I was Joe College. That's who I wanted to be, and that's who I thought I was. Really, I thought I was fucking Beaver Cleaver, or whoever the boy next door is these days. I really did.” What Rusty Sabich acknowledges in this angry confession, somewhere near the heart of Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent, is his abiding sense of his own “strangeness.” Like Sarah Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski, Sabich alternately affirms and denies his ethnic past. More precisely, both Sarah Paretsky's series of five Warshawski novels and Turow's Presumed Innocent unfold, through the multiple layerings of their principal characters’ identity, strategies for projecting, denying, and encoding ethnicity.

Their novels restate some of the old dilemmas of ethnicity and American identity in new terms. Though Presumed Innocent has been classified as a “police procedural,” and most reviewers agree that Paretsky's novels take their point of departure from the hard-boiled detective story, their fiction is, in ways that have not been fully recognized, pervasively shaped by a rhetoric of ethnicity. Their novels are set in a Chicago where the old neighborhood boundaries, those once clear lines dividing one ethnic group from another, seem to have disappeared. Some of the representations of ethnicity that Turow and Paretsky deploy are accordingly elusive; it's possible to take them for notations on style or social status. When, for example, V. I. Warshawski puts on her expensive Italian Bruno Magli shoes, insists on fresh pasta, sings Italian opera, dreams in Italian, or, on ceremonial occasions, brings out her mother's Venetian glasses, we may read such actions as flourishes of her life-style or her stubborn individualism. They also can stand, in the detailed social context of Paretsky's Chicago, as expressions of a modulated and ambiguous ethnicity. Turow represents Sabich's ethnic identity far more subtly, but, much like Paretsky, he is probing the limits and boundaries of a “symbolic ethnicity.”

That is to say, we witness in Warshawski and Sabich two characters who seem, at times, to believe that ethnicity “may be shed, resurrected, or adopted as the situation warrants.” Philip Gleason, in an essay on “American Identity and Americanization,” has called this the “optionalist” view of ethnic identity, and associates it with the “new ethnicity” that emerged in the mid 1960s. He contrasts it with the more traditional or “primordialist” interpretation of ethnicity, offering these standard definitions: “an indelible stamp on the psyche,” “an inheritance from the past, one of those primordial qualities” that will forever remain part of an individual's or a group's frame of cultural reference.

We may, it seems to me, profitably attempt to situate Paretsky's and Turow's novels and the sensibilities of their principal characters somewhere between the “primordialist” and “optionalist” interpretations of ethnic identity. Warshawski and Sabich, in many ways, contradict the primordialist view, having forgotten or having deliberately erased ties to the traditional sources of ethnicity: to family, religion, community, and culture. At the same time, their conscious acts of denial, like Rusty Sabich's identification with Beaver Cleaver, are suspect, even to them. In short, their fiction invokes ethnic identity, even as it suggests that the conditions for ethnicity died with an earlier, immigrant generation. Whether ethnicity can be “optionally” cultivated, willed, or rejected—put on or taken off like Warshawski's Magli shoes—stands as an open question. How free, in other words, are these two second and third-generation characters to put on or take off their given ethnic identities? That is the general question my essay will try to answer.


Perhaps it's unfair to say that Sarah Paretsky and Scott Turow write for readers who can jog and read. They do have their characters indulge in some upscale tastes in wine and food and, on occasion, they conspicuously display their knowledge of Chicago's finest restaurants. But, to emphasize that their principal and minor characters wear clothes and assume appearances that might place them comfortably on the pages of Vanity Fair, or GQ, or among the happy campers in an L. L. Bean catalog—to emphasize such things risks distorting some fairly ordinary middle-class fantasies. Just as often, Paretsky and Turow stress, through their name-brand identifications and embedded consumer-information, that their protagonists feel they don't really belong in this ordinary, middle-class world.

It's clear, on the other hand, that V. I. Warshawski and Rozat Sabich know what it means to authenticate or legitimize a claim to a place in a post-ethnic and white-collar society. Consider but two brief illustrations. First, V. I. Warshawski:

I … went into the guest room to dress for a trip to the northern suburbs. … I put on the blue Chanel jacket with a white shirt and white wool slacks. The effect was elegant and professional. (Deadlock)

The second passage records Rusty Sabich's impression of a rock guitarist, now turned “Waspy” or “Ivy League” attorney:

He had chopped a good two inches off the curled edges of his pageboy, and he turned out in a distinguished blue pinstriped suit from J. Press in New Haven.

Warshawski and Sabich understand such disguises, and can decode counterfeit and double identities, because it's one of their professional duties—as private investigator and prosecuting attorney—to do so. This acute consciousness of maskings and unmaskings carries another and more important significance. It's an index to their own sense of a double identity and to the sometimes painful reminders of a divided self. Warshawski and Sabich understand multiple personae and quick-changes of identity because, for much of their lives, they too have protected and self-consciously projected a “private I.”

Sabich reveals both his invented and inner selves forcibly if indirectly, when he comments on his sometime friend and colleague, Nico Della Guardia:

When I first met Nico, a dozen years ago, I recognized him instantly as a smart-ass ethnic kid, familiar to me from high school and the streets, the kind who, over the years, I had self-consciously chosen not to be: savvier than he was smart, boastful, always talking. But with few others to look to, I formed with Nico the sort of fast association of fresh recruits.

This suggests that Rusty believes, or once believed, that he could shed his ethnic past. He could choose, through an act of will and self-consciousness, not to be “a smart-ass ethnic kid.” But the freedom to reject his ethnicity and to invent an identity turns out to be more burdened with difficulty than he'd once imagined. It's one thing to trim away the foreign sound in Rozat, his given name; another, to erase memories of his parents and cancel his inherited family traits. Much as he wants to be “Rusty”—to live up to a name emblemizing innocence, rustic normalcy, and a kind of sit-com Americanness—he is inevitably drawn back to the feeling that he's one “strange son-of-a-bitch.” This, he attributes to his Yugoslavian father and his mother, “the sixth daughter of a Jewish union organizer and a lass from Cork.” At the beginning of the trial that dominates the novel, he fears that having been categorized as the “son of an immigrant” will uncover his father's guilty past and lead to his own conviction. He has been charged with the brutal murder of another deputy prosecuting attorney. During the trial, he broods over his family and his dead parents: “Oh, this cataclysm of love and attachment. And shame.” He wears his invented identity, his boy-next-door face, uneasily.

Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski does not seem, like Rusty Sabich, liable to brood anxiously over her identity. V. I. sharply answers those who call her Vicki, and suffers only a few select friends and relatives to call her Victoria. Victoria Iphigenia, her given name, seems an almost wholly-forgotten part of her past. Call her Vic, or, if you're a client, call her V. I. She takes it as a matter of course that most of the low-life Chicagoans and snooty suburbanites that she meets will not be able to pronounce her last name (an oddity, since Warshawski & Warshawski Auto Accessories is one of the city's oldest and best known dealers). Upstanding Winnetka citizens, no less than the leg-breaking mafiosi she frequently tackles, call her a “Polack detective” (Indemnity Only). As many readers and reviewers have noticed, she speaks and acts with the violent assertiveness and the self-reliant toughness of a Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler hero.

V. I. also holds the power to fluidly assume the manner and voice of her immigrant mother. Like Rusty Sabich, she possesses within her a second or ethnic identity, but, much unlike him, she takes an expressive delight in projecting her parent's manner. In a comic episode in Killing Orders, she shouts out to some policemen that she is Gabriella Sforzina (her mother's name). Donning a cleaning smock, she masquerades as an Italian immigrant. She speaks broken English, then explodes into excited Italian, which in fact is a recital of “Madamina” from Don Giovanni. In more serious moments, at times of authentic emotional intensity, she sings the operatic lyrics her mother taught her (Deadlock,Indemnity Only). In Blood Shot (1988), as in Killing Orders, she fulfills the promises and obligations her mother made years before, and, in doing so, she continues her mother's role as a protector to the Djiak family and to her great Aunt, Rosa Vignelli.


Though in Killing Orders, V. I. Warshawski solemnly identifies herself with “the children of immigrants,” none of Paretsky's novels enact or re-enact, in conventional narrative form, the generational conflicts of immigrant parents and children. Classic immigrant and ethnic novels like Rolvaag's sequels to Giants in the Earth (1927)—Peder Victorious (1929) and Their Father's God (1931)—Henry Roth's Call It Sleep (1934), and Willard Motley's Knock On Any Door (1947) enact dramas of generational conflict. The immigrant parents in them struggle against their children's loss of old-world religious beliefs, their failure to learn the mother tongue, and their general indifference to their parents’ cultural and moral values. From the first generation's perspective, the process of acculturation and assimilation unfolds into a story of the second generation's degeneration.

Given the absence of these generational struggles in the Warshawski series, we should not expect Paretsky to deploy the rhetoric or typology of generational conflict. Nevertheless, three of her novels—Deadlock,Killing Orders, and Blood Shot—boldly outline what Werner Sollors has called “the melodrama of numbered generations.” Paretsky both reproduces and parodies the moral and typological roles we conventionally assign to the so-called first, second, and third generations. These generations are, in several important respects, cultural constructions. The moral typology that condemns the second generation for betraying its parents’ values, the generational typology that, correspondingly, extols the virtues of the first and third generation for maintaining ethnicity, always verges upon melodrama. The implicit moral exhortations, addressed to the “good” and “bad” generations, invariably disguise “the tension” that all generations feel “between the wish to escape ancestors and the yearning to fulfill them.”

Paretsky's representation of immigrant and ethnic identity plays off of these culturally constructed generations. V. I. Warshawski belongs, ambiguously, to both the second and third generation. Her mother was an Italian immigrant, and Jewish; her father was a second generation Polish-American. Even when her parents were alive, she did not deny their ethnic values, nor did she define her identity through a generational struggle. Nothing in the detailed, retrospective chronicles of her past suggests that, from her parents’ perspective, she acted out the conventional second generation's backslide into “degeneration.” She seems loyal to their memory and to the ethnic values they represent.

What Paretsky does, to reconstitute a melodrama of numbered generations, is to pit V. I. against a surrogate first generation, against immigrant figures like her great Aunt Rosa and grandma Wojcik, against ethnic types such as Lt. Robert Mallory. They hold the moral perspective conventionally assigned to first generation parents. To them, Victoria or Vicki illustrates the second generation's expected moral decline and degeneration. Thus, Paretsky can have an authentic ethnic heroine, while satirizing the ethnicity and old world values that she symbolically locates in V. I.'s aunts, uncles, and South Chicago neighbors. In the novel Deadlock, for example, Paretsky opens with a funeral mass for V. I.'s cousin, the star hockey player, Boom Boom Warshawski. Instead of a “quiet service” at the “non-denominational chapel” that V. I. would have picked, Boom Boom's aunts have chosen St. Wenceslas, a “vulgar church in the old neighborhood.” There she stares at “imitation Tiffany windows” “in garish colors,” and grimaces over religious scenes distorted by a tasteless “pseudocubism.” At the Wojcik home where the funeral luncheon's given, she complains about a “house swarming with children,” where it becomes so crowded that she begins “tripping over babies.” She notes, sarcastically, that there's onion on Grandma Wojcik's breath, and she sniffs at the repulsively “heavy smell of Polish cooking.”

Some of these observations are rendered in a comic spirit, though the episode culminates in her overpowering sense of suffocation. “The smoke and noise and the sour cabbage smell,” she says, “were filling my brain.” During the mass, the Wojciks had loudly whispered criticisms of her because she wore a blue not a black suit. At the luncheon, they openly pick at her for not staying married and raising a family. V. I. feels an angry contempt for their translation of old-world religious beliefs, and recalls childhood memories of the family's “violent religiosity.” All in all, she stigmatizes her cousin's relatives for sexual attitudes that seem a cruel, if paradoxical, mix of male-chauvinism and matriarchal power. In short, she declares her independence and identity against their peculiar ethnic character. Together, she and the Wojciks re-enact the roles of a conservative first and rebellious second generation.

Lieutenant Robert Mallory and Vic Warshawski, in somewhat different terms, replay the same pattern of generational conflict. Since Mallory and her father, Tony Warshawski, worked together on the Chicago Police Department, it seems almost natural for him to invoke her father's name and authority when he criticizes her. In Indemnity Only, he begs her to assume a woman's role: “You know, if Tony had turned you over his knee more often instead of spoiling you rotten, you'd be a happy housewife now, instead of playing at detective and making it hard for us to get our job done.” He thinks of her, as V. I. says, “as his old buddy Tony's daughter,” wants to define her strictly within traditional family and generational slots (Killing Orders). Like the wearisome Wojcik aunts, like her own great Aunt Rosa, he sees her betraying and abandoning the first generation's moral values. These necessarily include traditionally assigned gender roles. In an especially angry moment, he charges her with having become a lesbian, with having dishonored her father during the time he was dying. It is then, in reply, that she identifies herself with the loyal “children of immigrants” (Killing Orders).

Lieutenant Mallory, of course, can be regarded as the honest, but plodding and bureaucratic cop who, in novels like Hammett's The Thin Man, sets in high relief the force and brilliance of the archetypal hard-boiled detective. Paretsky, as Bakerman and others have observed, had cut the template for V. I.'s character and type from the hard-boiled detective story. This is not to say, as some of the slicker reviewers have, that Warshawski is simply a women's-lib Philip Marlowe or an updated, 1980s, version of Sam Spade or Mike Hammer. What ultimately distinguishes her from these hard-boiled predecessors is not her sex, her occasional scruples about violence, her fading political consciousness, or her semi-religious regimen of jogging. It is, instead, the legibility and the haunting definiteness of her South Chicago past, expressed in the persistent memories of her deceased parents and the undying burden of her family relations.

The typical hard-boiled detective does not brood over the past or remember, in any except the most perfunctory way, his parents or his childhood neighborhood. Though Hammett, for example, tells us that Nick Charles’ father was a Greek immigrant, named Charalambides, we learn almost nothing else about his parents or his extended family (The Thin Man, beginning of chapter 7). That his father was Greek does not mark him indelibly, or prompt him to invent and consciously maintain an alternate identity. His ethnic past is of no emotional significance. Another Hammett hero, Sam Spade, springs from an even more elusive past and parentage. These are authentic American Adams. Like the “western hero,” the hard-boiled detective draws his moral purity and identity from, what John Cawelti appropriately calls, an “unsullied isolation.”

V. I. Warshawski also lives or often tries to live in “unsullied isolation,” though she's more likely to express it as the value she places on finding some time alone. In contrast to the gaps and blank pages of the hard-boiled detective's life story, her family history and her complex ethnic identity are fully inscribed in her autobiographical narratives. Warshawski, in telling and retelling her life story, sometimes elaborates incidents and details of family history with the thickening density ordinarily associated with bulky, Victorian dynastic novels. Any reader of the Warshawski series quickly learns that V. I. grew up in South Chicago, on Houston, somewhere near 92nd or 93rd street or Ninetieth and Commercial (her old home address changes from Indemnity Only to Blood Shot). V. I. bitterly recalls that her father struggled with “the prejudice against Polish cops in an all-Irish world” (Killing Orders). We're told that her mother, Gabriella Vignelli, had her opera career ended by World War II; learn of her mother's alienation from the intolerant neighbors of South Chicago; and follow, in ever-lengthening family histories, the story of the aunts, uncles, cousins, and others that make up the combined Warshawski and Vignelli families as well as the Djiaks that Gabriella, then V. I., half-adopt.

Far from being a splendid isolato, in the tradition of the lonely hard-boiled detective, V. I. feels herself joined to an extended family that spreads across the map of Chicago and its suburbs. She both acknowledges and rejects a “sense of peoplehood,” that particularistic identity that makes her feel her otherness and her relation to so many others. Her identity rests on her ethnic bonds, and, paradoxically, upon her rejection of ethnicity.


Warshawski and Sabich understand the importance, the peculiar burden, of being ethnic. Though for many years they've lived far from their old neighborhoods, they grew up in an ethnic neighborhood, and will always be from there. Sabich has moved to Nearing, a mythical suburb of the unnamed big city in Presumed Innocent. Warshawski now lives near Belmont and Halsted on Chicago's north side, in a two or three-flat somewhere between a Puerto Rican neighborhood and a rising tide of gentrification. Like a hundred American heroes before them, they believe, in one way and another, that “you can't go home again.” And yet, each of them does make a symbolic return to the old neighborhood, to their ethnic past and identity.

For Sabich, this occurs in an old neighborhood tavern called “Six Brothers.” The tavern sits in one of Chicago's fading ethnic neighborhoods—“shingle-sided bungalows tucked in among the warehouses and factories.” It could be in Mayor Daley's Bridgeport, in Eddie Vrodolyak's South Chicago, or in dozens of other Chicago neighborhoods. Sabich tells us that, in this neighborhood, there are a few “stoical families holding out against the Ricans and the blacks.” “The tavern,” he adds, “is like so many others out this way; just a joint with Formica tables, a vinyl floor, lights over the mirrors.” Here, as elsewhere in his novel, Turow elides street names and charts his urban geography with a cunning indefiniteness bordering on the allegorical. Sabich, in other words, has returned to a time and place that is almost gone, almost completely forgotten. Still, it exists, remains as a stage and prompt for his self-recognition. Fittingly, it is here that Sabich, amidst a half-dozen signs of the anachronist and under the nearly unendurable pressures of his trial, recognizes and acknowledges that he is “one strange son of a bitch.” Which is to say, he sees, in a way he had never seen before, that his identity springs from his parents, from his half-forgotten ethnic past. What he has denied, in inventing his Beaver-Cleaver identity, lives on as stubbornly as the “Six Brothers” tavern.

The ritual return to the old neighborhood, in Paretsky's novels, takes on a far different significance. In Blood Shot, she flatly titles one chapter, “You Can't Go Home Again.” Quite unlike Sabich who discovers and defines his identity in the half-mythic old neighborhood, Warshawski declares her identity against it:

South Chicago itself looked moribund, its life frozen somewhere around the time of World War II. … Women wrapped in threadbare wool coats still wore cotton babushkas as they bent their heads into the wind. On the corners, near the ubiquitous storefront taverns, stood vacant-eyed, shabbily clad men.

And when she drives on to the East Side, she finds that people “live in a stubborn isolation, trying to recreate the Eastern European villages of their grandparents.” For Turow's Sabich, the old neighborhood “stoically” holds on: for Warshawski, it stubbornly clings to a meaningless existence, and fails to comprehend its own death. She fears being caught by the strangling “tentacles from South Chicago.” This difference in characterization, the significance given these vestiges of ethnic and immigrant life, suggests one concluding point.

Two early twentieth century novels of ethnic experience, Cahan's Rise of David Levinsky (1917) and Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), set a narrative pattern, that in many ways still stands as a commanding intertext. In much of our immigrant and ethnic fiction, Werner Sollors finds, the protagonists’ “externally upward journeys … from poverty to material success, from ethnic marginality to a more ‘American’ identity,” rests upon a fundamental irony. Inwardly, the protagonists “perceive themselves as victims of circumstance, unhappy cowards, and traitors to kin” and “an authentic, inner” self. What the characters thought to be a rise was really a fall. The confessional, autobiographical patterns that frame the irony of these stories reveal the difficulties of constructing “the self as autonomous individual and as fated group member.”

Turow's Presumed Innocent reflects this fundamental irony, and his protagonist's return to the “Six Brothers” defines the recreation of his “authentic, inner self.” To repeat Philip Gleason's term, this illustrates a “primordialist” interpretation of ethnic identity. Paretsky's Warshawski series, however sporadically, writes out a new or different rhetoric of ethnicity. Her protagonist's “authentic, inner self” emerges through her defiance of her “fated group identity,” through her denial of what she regards as traditional ethnic values. Though she's far more precise about the boundaries and locations of Chicago's ethnic neighborhoods than Sabich, in another sense, she's declared the ethnic neighborhood to be dead and its cultural values “moribund.” The bonds of community and the forces of determinism that held Farrell's, Algren's, Motley's and all but the wiliest of Bellow's heroes trapped within their ethnicity and their ethnic neighborhoods have been swept away. To put this in other terms, V. I. Warshawski defines her “unsullied isolation,” as the western hero or hard-boiled detective might. She seals off from memory the vestiges of her ethnic past, and displays or disguises, at will, her invented self and her symbolic ethnicity.

Alison Littler (essay date Winter 1991)

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SOURCE: “Marele Day's ‘Cold Hard Bitch’: The Masculinist Imperatives of the Private-Eye Genre,” in Journal of the Narrative Technique, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 121-35.

[In the following excerpt, Littler analyzes how feminist writers, including Paretsky, have dealt with the requirement of violence in the detective genre.]


… Most fiction using women private eyes as central characters and usually as narrators has been published in the U.S. since the 1970s. The earliest exceptions to this period, according to Kathleen Gregory Klein, in The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre are Gale Gallagher's I Found Him Dead (1947) and Chord in Crimson (1949). P. D. James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, published in London in 1974, predates M. F. Beal's Chicana private eye, Maria Katerina Lorca Guerrera Alcazar (‘Kat’), and Marcia Muller's Amer-Indian private eye, Sharon McCone, by three years. Eve Zaremba's private eye from Vancouver, Helen Keremos, appeared in 1978. But it was in the 1980s that a significant increase occurred in women writing series characters in this genre. Sara Paretsky's private eye, V. I. Warshawski, appeared in Chicago in 1982; Gillian Slovo's Kate Baier, an amateur turned professional, appeared in London in 1984; Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone appeared in Ross Macdonald's fictional town of Santa Teresa in 1985; Maria-Antònia Oliver's Lònia Guiu appeared in Barcelona in 1985 and in English translation in 1987; Lauren Wright Douglas's Caitlin Reece appeared in Victoria, British Columbia in 1987; and Marele Day's Claudia Valentine appeared in Sydney in 1988. There is now a strong group of writings in which women characters work professionally as private eyes and operate without male partners. Similar characters, after the male-female duos of Remington Steele and Moonlighting set the scene, were only beginning to appear on U.S. television in late 1989 with the series Legwork. There has also been a British TV series entitled South of the Border, yet to be screened in Australia, which focuses on a private-eye agency run by two women, Pearl and Finn. …

Violence is not only the necessary starting point for the narrative in masculinist private-eye fiction, it is also the site around which the narrative action takes place and, more important, it is also a test of the hero's physical and, by extension, moral superiority and fitness to be an heroic figure. The common and accepted use of a first-person narrator in private-eye fiction ensures that all attention is focused on the private eye hero. It is commonplace now to argue that the white, masculinist, North American frontier mentality gave rise to the mythology sustaining the masculinist private eye. But more important, this frontier mentality recognizes violence as the significant test of manhood. As well as Richard Slotkin's study of violence in the white North American male heroic tradition, Dennis Porter finds that “for the private eye as for the Indian scout, the hunter, the cowboy, and the soldier, the final test of self-worth and of the quality of an individual's manhood occurs in violent action.”

So how do women private eyes deal with this requirement for violence? It throws up the difficult question for feminists of whether interventions in and interrogations of a conservative genre constitute a subversion of that conservatism when they have to continue working with the strongest elements of its conservatism. If there is some kind of subversion of the genre, we should be clear about what kind of subversion occurs and ask what weight does it have in terms of radical feminist discourse?

One should acknowledge at the outset that violence has different meanings for men and women. For example, in masculinist ideology, male violence is strongly connected to male sexuality. Sense of self in masculinist thinking is firmly defined through physical strength and physical capability, so that success or failure in the job of private eye is, by definition, success or failure of the person—“It's not just a job, it's who I am.” This attitude to physicality is not only expressed by the hero or narrator but is also used to judge the success or failure of other characters as people. It is also for this reason that women can never be valued as people in masculinist ideology because masculinism defines itself by what is not female; hence, men are always stronger and, therefore, better. Mickey Spillane's work is probably the most outrageous example of this kind of warped thinking. But even male authors who have written about women being tough or violent, for example, tend to conflate violence with female sexuality, and with women being sexually provocative: the women can be in stages of undress, such as Modesty Blaise, or Ian Fleming's “enemy” women in his James Bond books; they can look fiery and (a)roused in battle (“I love it when you're angry!”); or they combine a tomboyish with a womanly appeal. But in these cases it is male characters or their authors watching women and the gaze is most definitely male.

Feminist writers, on the other hand, recognize that most violence is male and is directed at women and they are often interested in women's responses to “domestic” criminal violence. They also recognize how female characters in masculinist private-eye fiction are usually victims or betrayers who remain background figures; their function is to act as a foil for the male hero's superiority. Feminist writers of private-eye fiction consciously set out to respond to masculinist stereotypes of women by constructing tough women characters who are not victims and who retain control of their own lives. When these women fight the gaze is female and does not usually linger on the body or find violent action by either male or female to be sexually provocative. Being tough is rationalized as being part of the job requirements. Bronwen Levy, for example, addresses the issue of women's (fictional) political violence in an article entitled “The Victim Fights Back: Women, Politics, Fiction, Crime,” wherein she discusses texts by women “which feature women who have broken the written laws, women criminals and lawbreakers.”


… Sara Paretsky, in response to a question about criticism of her writing from feminists, explains why she decided that her fictional private eye, V. I. Warshawksi, has to carry a gun. Paretsky, too, recognizes how strong the genre's requirement is for the hero to be seen as able to carry and use a gun should the need arise which, surprise, surprise, it always does:

Some feminists don't like the fact that she carries a gun. I thought about it, and in the second book I tried dispensing with the gun. I finally decided it just couldn't be. I'm totally opposed to handguns, but she is doing a particular kind of job in a very violent arena, and I feel I have to let her be armed to have it equal. Even though she's incredibly fit, a fit, strong woman is no match for a fit, strong man. When I started out, she never shot at anyone to kill them and she still would prefer never to kill, in fact, I won't let anyone she shoots die.

Paretsky's view that “a fit, strong woman is no match for a fit, strong man” seems to equate strength and fitness with knowing how to use that strength. But fitness per se is not sufficient if a man does not know how to use his body. But, more particularly, Paretsky's explanation that her character “would prefer never to kill” is ingenuous, to say the least, considering the fact that Paretsky herself chooses to place her character in this genre's “very violent arena.”

In private-eye fiction the women protagonists are tough, able and willing to physically fight an opponent with or without a gun. They do not simply respond defensively to a threat. They go out looking for action and expecting to confront violence: “Before anyone could object I left the room. All this rapping to and fro wasn't getting us anywhere. If you want action, go out and rattle somebody or something. It's always worked for me in the past. It had better work now.” Women private eyes, in turn, rather like the criminals they pursue, consciously use violence as a tool of trade, knowing all the time that defense of themselves or others will involve having to kill someone at some time. When the female private eye responds defensively to a violent attack, her response frequently turns into something else. Consider the following extract:

Up came the racket again. The wood rim descended like a blade, too swift this time to evade. I took the brunt of it on my left forearm, raised instinctively to shield my face. The racket connected with a cracking sound. The blow was like a white flash of heat up my arm. I can't say I felt pain. It was more like a jolt to my psyche, unleashing aggression.

I caught her in the mouth with the heel of my hand, knocking her back into him. The two of them went down with a mingled yelp of surprise. The air around me felt white and empty and clean. I grabbed her shirt with an unholy strength, hauling her to her feet. Without any thought at all, I punched her once, registering an instant later the smacking sound as my fist connected with her face.

Somebody snagged my arm from behind. The desk clerk was hanging on to me, screaming incoherently. My left hand was still knotted in Elva's shirt. She tried to backstroke out of range, arms flailing as she yodeled with fear, eyes wide.

My self-control reasserted itself and I lowered my fist. She fairly crowed with relief, staring at me in astonishment. I don't know what she'd seen in my face, but I knew what I'd seen in hers. I felt giddy with power, happiness surging through me like pure oxygen. There's something about physical battle that energizes and liberates, infusing the body with an ancient chemistry—a cheap high with a sometimes deadly effect.

The narrator is Kinsey Millhone, fictional private investigator constructed by Sue Grafton. Contrary to the masculinist private eye's code Kinsey frequently fights other women. A male private eye—with the exception of Spillane's Mike Hammer, perhaps—would not fight a woman. He may be “forced” (by the narrative) to kill a woman but if she tries to fight him or is belligerent she would still not constitute a serious threat, he would simply subdue her by his superior strength—naturally.

Does it make any difference to our reading of the passage to know that the narrator is female? For example, when a fictional woman is able to fight and subdue another, is able to threaten another using a gun, and even, should the occasion arise, kill another person, are her values any different to the masculinist ideology which uses violence as a necessary, and the crucial test of manhood?

Why, for example, does Kinsey, when she has “hauled” the woman to her feet with an “unholy strength,” not stop there? Why does she then punch the woman in the face “without thought at all”? Why aim for the face? Do we read this scene as womanliness being tested (and proved)? Is her unholy strength an indication of moral and physical superiority? Do we read Kinsey as an heroic figure? Is she acting in self-defense or is there more happening here? What is the significance of an heroic figure getting a “high” (albeit “cheap”) on the fear in another person's face, the air around her feeling “white and empty and clean” as aggression is “unleashed,” and Kinsey feeling “giddy with power, happiness surging through … [her] like pure oxygen”? Does a reader approve or sanction these feelings or do they have overtones of Mickey Spillane's valorization of gratuitous violence? Does Kinsey rationalize and justify her actions in ways that are different from men's accounts or are the rationalizations similar, that is, “in a tough world you've got to be tough”?

Sara Paretsky's private eye, V. I. Warshawski, is also streetwise, tough, and is able to fight. As recognition of her “femininity” perhaps, she also has a liking for silk shirts and Italian shoes. In this extract Warshawski's opponent is male, as he often is in Paretsky's novels. Consider Warshawski's “trying to force down the desire to kill,” noting the easy conflation of revenge with “desire”:

As nearly as I could tell, I'd hit his right leg just above the knee. It should have been a bad enough wound to keep him from moving, but he was strong and he was scared. He tried scrabbling away from me in the snow. I grabbed his right arm and yanked it up behind him … I sat back and looked at the hit man. Sour bile filled my mouth. I swallowed a handful of snow, gagged, swallowed again, trying to force down the desire to kill Novick where he lay.

“Walter, you're a lucky man. Pasquale doesn't give a damn whether you live or die. Neither do I. But you're going to live. Isn't that nice? And if you swear in court that the man who ordered you out here tonight was behind the stabbing of Stefan Herschel, I'll see you get a good plea-bargain. We'll forget the acid. We'll even forget the fire. How about it?” …

He still didn't say anything. I pulled the Smith & Wesson from my jeans belt. “If I shoot your left kneecap, you'll never be able to prove it didn't happen when you attacked me at the door.”

“You wouldn't,” he gasped.

He was probably right; my stomach was churning as it was. What kind of person kneels in the snow threatening to destroy the leg of an injured man? Not anyone I wanted to know. I pulled the hammer back with a loud click and pointed the gun at his left leg.

Because Walter has earlier threatened and attacked Warshawski, she wants revenge when she is next in control. The fact that she wants revenge is not challenged by the author or the narrative, and is itself a dubious notion. The last paragraph is particularly interesting, specifically Warshawski's rhetorical question, “What kind of person kneels in the snow threatening to destroy the leg of an injured man?” What kind of person, indeed. Despite Warshawski's answer, “Not anyone I wanted to know,” a reader is presumably not expected to have the same response, close the book and return it to the library. The question and admission by Warshawski that she does not like herself for what she has to do becomes a kind of valorization of some outside influence over which she has no control; an outside influence that forces her to do what she has to do. That outside influence in the text is, conveniently, the demands of the job of private eye; she has to behave in that way to get the information she needs for the case on which she is working. The job, therefore, is responsible for Warshawski behaving in this way. But that outside influence does not count for much when it is recognized as simply a convention of the narrative. It's another version of another version of “a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. …” Here the narrative requires violence as a necessary tool of trade.

While physical violence for Kinsey Millhone is “liberating” and for Warshawski something unpleasant which she is forced (by the narrative) to use, there is a scene in Marele Day's novel Harry Lavender in which violence and female sexuality are closely connected, and allied in the same way as the masculinist preoccupation with physical violence is with male sexuality. …

Interestingly too, in the longer passage above by Marele Day, Claudia expresses contempt for her own behavior, by calling herself “Cold hard bitch, cold hard monster,” just as Warshawski expresses disapproval for her own behavior. Again, it is not expected that readers would share this judgment, close the book and make another trip to the library; the weight of the narrative does not condemn Claudia's toughness in the face of “feminine” guile and deceit.


In discussing the hero of the thriller, assuming in the process that all heroes are male, Jerry Palmer argues that violence between the hero and the villain has to be read differently so that readers can stay on the side of the angels. His comments are also applicable to feminist heroes:

violence by the hero … is intended to exhilarate the reader: since we are on his side, and believe that he is justified, we are free to enjoy the sensation of suppressing the obstacles that confront us/him. Descriptions of violence by the villain are intended in a different way: they are clearly supposed to nauseate the reader.

In an earlier work, “Thrillers: The Deviant Behind the Consensus,” Palmer argues that much of the male hero's violence, the violence which is supposed to exhilarate the reader, is, in fact, plainly deviant or transgressive. William Ruehlmann has a similar argument. What he finds interesting in passages from Mickey Spillane is not that Mike Hammer “is an evident psychopath, but that he is the hero. In him is invested the moral sanction of his fictive world.” Jerry Palmer finds that the superiority of the central heroic figure:

is incarnated in acts that are deliberately and explicitly deviant, and yet justified. The individuality, the personal worth of the hero is presented as inseparable from the performance of actions that in other circumstances would be reprehensible; yet at the same time the “circumstances” are a fictional construct, designed to justify the pleasure that the reader derives from the representation of such acts.

One could argue a strong case for the violence shown by the three women private eyes quoted above as being as transgressive and as deviant as any masculinist response. However, one would not want to go as far as to say that women should not fight or should not be represented as doing so, since there is a serious risk of falling into a kind of biological essentialism which presents women as being nurturing, caring people, and so on, by their nature. Of course, women can be strong; they can fight to protect themselves; they can carry weapons; they can fight in war. But using the private-eye genre is not simply a matter of representing women as strong and able to fight to look after themselves, or of constructing a strong heroic woman as a role model. The important issue is the values which underlie, justify and valorize this behavior. The private-eye genre is more than the sum of a series of individual narrative techniques. To use the genre is to take part in, give credibility to, and to perpetuate a masculinist ideology which privileges individualism, heroism, violence and sexuality.

The questions for feminists to ask are easy; the answers are more difficult. Why choose to place women in this imaginary heroic setting at all? Why is there a need to image women as able to be violent in ways that go beyond defensiveness? Is it a response to the predominant cultural belief that heroism without the show of physical strength that is best displayed in a violent encounter is not really worthy of the term “heroism” at all and is kind of “wimpy”? Are other kinds of heroism less appealing as sites for contestation of gender issues because they are less valorized by popular Western masculinist mythologies? What does “heroism” mean for feminist writers? Is it basically a masculinist term anyway, focusing as it does on a superior individual pitting physical strength against violent, corrupt enemies of society? Joanna Russ thought so in 1972 when she wrote “What Can a Heroine Do? Or Why Women Can't Write,” although many would find her comments no longer appropriate to women's genre fiction in the late 1980s. While women writers in the private-eye genre do not all claim to be feminists, in their novels they each show some recognition of feminist issues and discourses. What kind of feminism is constructed through these novels? If feminism valorizes independence and assertiveness, should violence and physical toughness be seen as a logical extension? If not, when does assertion become aggression, and where does it end? When Kinsey Millhone claims “physical battle … energizes and liberates, infusing the body with an ancient chemistry,” what weight do we give to the word “liberates” and what is the nature of the appeal to an “ancient chemistry”? Do we agree with Claudia Valentine's self-assessment that she is a “cold hard bitch, cold hard monster”? …


… Cora Kaplan, in an address to the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1988, suggested ways in which feminist criticism of the mid-1970s differs from the situation now. She concluded by using a question to focus on the differences. Her question is a useful one to consider in the light of studies of genre and popular fiction and how feminists intervene in mainstream publishing. Cora Kaplan asks, “What kind of novels should a feminist write now?”

How the term “feminist” is defined, of course, will be crucial to the kind of answers that are offered. If, for example, “feminist” is used in a liberal-humanist-independent-career-woman-in-control-of-her-own-life sense, then most certainly the recent series of women private eyes are feminist. If, however, “feminist” refers to a woman deconstructing phallocentric ideologies wherever they are naturalized and structured into social, cultural and political practices, then a feminist private eye is a contradiction in terms. She is a man in woman's clothing—or is it a woman in man's clothing?

One answer to Cora Kaplan's question could be that perhaps feminists writing crime genre fiction should be trying to go beyond the nexus and privileging of violent individual heroics; beyond a super-outsider figure looking at the world; beyond privileging a hierarchy of bourgeois-valued (that is, consumerist and individualist) crime; and beyond using violence for the setting and raison d'etre for a narrative and as the test of heroism. Perhaps feminists who are interested in the issue of violence should be focusing on the values that lead to a violent or aggressive response to the world and how that violence is structured into Western society's everyday practices. After all, maybe the real lesson for feminists is that in Western consumerist culture, one has to stay marginalized in order to maintain a radical critique of that culture's ideologies, as difficult as a marginalized life is and as seductive as the mainstream seems. There are costs to becoming part of the mainstream and one of the most serious ones is that the language and ideas of any radical critique or discourse, feminism included, are appropriated, popularized, and thereby distorted by Western consumerist culture.

Marele Day may well believe that the hard-boiled American school of private-eye fiction allows “a greater questioning of traditional roles” but the question still remains whether the strong, tough, independent, “feminist” women of the private-eye genre can only be tough at the expense of a thorough critique of the masculinist ideology which constructs a nexus between crime, violence, heroism, and sexuality. And if the answer is yes, women private eyes are tough at the expense of a radical critique of masculinist ideology, then the private-eye genre is still a highly problematic site for feminist writers.

Glenwood Irons (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “New Women Detectives: G is for Gender-Bending,” in his Gender Language and Myth: Essays on Popular Narrative, University of Toronto Press, 1992, pp. 127-40.

[In the following essay, Irons discusses how Paretsky and other women writers have altered detective fiction through their use of strong female protagonists.]

Detection à la femme has been extant since the inception of the detective genre. Not long after the publication of ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ Mrs Paschal appeared on the scene. She precipitated a tradition of ‘female sleuths’ who, with the possible exception of Jane Marple, have lived for some time under the shadow of their male colleagues. The majority of female detectives—known disparagingly as ‘knitting spinsters’—while at least as individualistic, daring, and stalwart as their male counterparts, have until recently been dismissed by (mostly) male critics of the genre as ‘lady detectives,’ an epithet that itself seemed disparaging enough.

In the last two decades, however, some critics of detective fiction have located feminist inclinations in the novels of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. As well, writers like Amanda Cross, Sue Grafton, P. D. James, and Sara Paretsky have created detectives who have ‘bent’ some phallocentric elements of the genre in order to impose a feminist perspective. Female detectives like Kate Fansler, Cordelia Gray, Kinsey Millhone, and V. I. Warshawski have become increasingly popular and, to varying degrees, are rewriting the original detective narratives to create a discursive space that is essentially female, young, and definitely not ‘spinsterish.’ In contrast to the narrow view of the curious, grey-haired spinster taken by Christie and other creators of ‘lady detectives,’ the New Woman Detective is not approached from a single perspective.

Authors have taken a number of approaches to this often misogynist genre, two of which were articulated in the early 1970s by P. D. James and Amanda Cross in the creation of Cordelia Gray and Kate Fansler respectively; more recently different territory has been staked out by Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, creators of the exercise-conscious, wisecracking Kinsey Millhone and V. I. Warshawski. The emergence of feminist and feminist-leaning detectives in the 1970s and 1980s is probably related as much to Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) as to the advent of (admittedly slow) historical changes, which are finally beginning to bring about a modicum of equality of the sexes. The acceleration of this process during the 1980s is also important to the appearance of feminist heroes in popular fiction. However, no matter what the historical or sociological reasons, it is clear that the female authors who choose to create female (and feminist) detectives are not simply recreating a female version of the male prototype; they are reworking the archetypal departure, initiation, and return cycle of the hero into a modern myth that speaks from the perspective of a female protagonist.

This reworking is not simply an arcane exercise in preaching to the converted. The female-detective novel is popular and, most important in the mass market where popular genres live or die, financially successful if the sales of the likes of James, Cross, Grafton, and Paretsky are an indication. Moreover, the recent work of academic critics recognizes the literary as well as the sociological importance of feminist detectives, and suggests the degree to which the feminist hero/ine speaks to the collective dreams and myths of a society troubled by notions of the physically (rather than intellectually) powerful hero. All of which emphasizes the arrival, as it were, of the female detective as an important and, as we shall see, subversive force in the phallocentric world of genre narrative.

It is my project here to show how the popular archetype of the detective as articulated by Poe, developed by Conan Doyle, and made American by Hammett and Chandler is altered by authors such as Cross, James, Grafton, and Paretsky. The new archetype reorders the popular myth (of the detective, and of ratiocination itself) into a kind of ‘detecting with a vengeance,’ to borrow a phrase from Modleski, in which the ‘mass-produced fantasies’ empower women against the macho males in the narratives. In this way the New Women Detectives act partly as a curative—to ‘inoculate’ women against the evils of a phallocentric universe—and partly as feminist role models, illustrating the importance of female strength through community in opposition to male strength through individual heroism.

To explore the reordering of the male detective myth into a feminist archetype, I will examine James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972), Cross's Death in a Tenured Position (1981), Grafton's F Is for Fugitive (1989), and Paretsky's Burn Marks (1990). The popularity of these works is based on their depiction of (or at least the mythological possibility of) woman's emotional and intellectual strength, a strength that is in opposition to the type of male heroism espoused by the marauding bullying of latter-day Rambo types. One can hope that, to paraphrase Dennis Porter's comments about the male detective, the recent popularity of the female detective is a ‘reflector and barometer’ of a society whose popular culture is beginning to grapple with the ‘aspirations, frustrations, and constraints’ of women. …

Some critics have argued that Cross has failed to ‘imagine completely an autonomous woman’; however, it is clear that she has begun the important task of articulating the feminist archetype in detective fiction. That the articulation of the ‘female struggle to imagine and achieve a balance between autonomy and dependence’ was begun by P. D. James and Amanda Cross is a tribute to their wills; once that work was begun, it became possible to articulate fully a feminist archetype in the narratives of Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky.

In Sue Grafton's eight novels, another modification of the New Woman Detective is apparent. Grafton chronicles the exploits of Kinsey Millhone, who is, as a slight mispronunciation of her name indicates, ‘a-lone,’ a ‘rugged individual’ who generally operates, like her California predecessors Spade and Marlowe, by herself. In certain ways Kinsey Millhone is caught between the tough-guy machismo of the originals and the new communal feminism of Cordelia Gray, Kate Fansler, and V. I. Warshawski. She is almost a literal extension of what Carol Clover, in an important essay on slasher films, … calls the ‘Final Girl,’ a figure whose ‘male femaleness’ blurs the traditional gender boundaries between the macho hero and the submissive victim/heroine in popular culture. Grafton ‘grafts’ certain male attributes—cynicism, tough talk, and wisecracking—onto Kinsey's female personality.

‘Bending the gender’ in creating a female hard-boiled detective, creating a tough gal, has its drawbacks. First, toughness itself, in the view of most women (and some men), is frequently démodé, even in the face of the nastiness of male machismo. Second, there is an ideological irony. Kathleen Klein has noted that the tough-gal pose represents, to feminist writers, an inherent ideological opposition of feminism (for which the undermining of patriarchal authority is often important) and the private eye (for whom the re-establishment of patriarchal order is always the implicit goal).

In creating a hard-boiled female detective who reflects the mythical pattern of the tough-guy genre, Grafton bends the genre's gender while keeping certain generic elements intact. For example, Grafton often protects the genre through her social setting and her crimes, which in her California illustrate societal corruption similar to that of earlier hard-boiled writers; Kinsey Millhone's solutions are often just as difficult and physically abusive as Spade's and Marlowe's. And like her older brothers, she is very much a cynical loner, a point she makes in each of her ‘submissions': ‘My name is Kinsey Millhone. … I'm thirty-two years old, twice married, no kids, currently unattached and likely to remain so given my disposition, which is cautious at best. At the moment, I don't even have a legitimate address’ (F Is for Fugitive). The few steady companions she ‘enjoys’ are a strange collection, a heterogeneous non-community whom she is often forced to protect. For example, Kinsey remarks on her present living conditions: ‘I'd been living with my landlord, Henry Pitts, while my garage apartment was being built. … I never think of him as elderly, though he'd celebrated his eighty-second birthday on Valentine's Day. … In some ways, I see myself as his protector, a notion that might amuse him, as he probably sees himself as mine’ (F Is for Fugitive). To a certain degree, Grafton's novels work because she has imposed a female persona onto the tough-guy myth and made it believable.

If Grafton has created a feminist detective, it is to the extent that Kinsey Millhone fulfils Marty Knepper's definition of feminists as ‘women capable of intelligence, moral responsibility, competence and independent action … [who reject] sexist stereotypes.’ Unlike Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski, Kinsey is not interested in the power of female bonding, rather, she has ‘engendered’ the macho tough-guy detective with a woman's perspective, a project quite different from the strength-from-bonding created by Paretsky. One could argue—and I emphasize the conditional—that Kinsey Millhone's narrative space in the discourse of feminism may be less problematical than that of the more consciously feminist V. I. Warshawski. The ideological paradox (noted by Klein) of a feminist's restoring law and order is less likely to intervene in Grafton, since at least to some degree Kinsey's feminism rests on her engendering in her female detective hard-boiled detective qualities—qualities that by definition threaten patriarchal institutions like the police and justice systems.

Rather than attempting to redesign or reorder the pop myth of the hard-boiled detective (and of ratiocination itself) into a communally oriented feminism, Grafton actually reinvents the ‘rugged individual’—as woman. Grafton's hard-boiled ‘sister’ is indeed a re-vision of the original tough guy; however, she has worked the tough-guy myth into ‘detecting with a vengeance,’ which offers female readers a ‘mass-produced fantasy’ of female heroism. We must remember, though, that the qualities of the cynical outsider, the rugged individual, are imposed upon a female point of view. Grafton's detective is nevertheless a powerful female hero who by definition is a subversive force in the phallocentric world of genre narrative because she bends the gender of the hero.

In the six novels in which she appears, Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski is an avowed feminist who works within a community of women who share strong emotional ties, frequently to the exclusion of male intervention. Indeed, men are almost always behind the criminal acts that she investigates. The community of women who support her is lead by Lotty Herschel, a doctor who runs a clinic in Chicago's decayed Puerto Rican neighbourhoods, but whose name clearly suggests that she offers the detective a protective ‘shell’ to which she can turn (and this she often does in times of emotional or physical need). However, V. I. is befriended by many other women in her world, from a young, wealthy debutante whose father has recently been murdered in Indemnity Only to a long-lost and sometimes irritating aunt whose apartment has been torched in Burn Marks While this connection with a highly visible community of women is important in advancing Paretsky's feminist project, it is also a clear break from the hard-boiled tradition. Unlike the étrangers Spade and Marlowe, V. I. Warshawski frequently depends on Lotty Herschel and others in her community of women. In fact, her lineage can best be traced through Cordelia Gray, Kate Fansler, and, to a much lesser extent, Kinsey Millhone, all of whom also connect with communities of women in order to undertake their ratiocinative enterprise.

At a reading in Chicago of Burn Marks (1990) Sara Paretsky remarked that she had been told early on by her publisher to write about things that were familiar to her. When she wrote her first novel, Indemnity Only (1982), she was a recent university graduate working for an insurance company; the novel is about a murdered University of Chicago student who had uncovered an insurance scam. In Burn Marks Paretsky once again returns to familiar ground—this time to the Chicago of crooked construction companies and corrupt politicians. Indeed, it is eminently clear that Paretsky spent considerable time making herself familiar with the perils of skyscraper construction and other hazards in a novel whose plot involves V. I. Warshawski in an investigation (for an Insurance company) of a hotel fire. V. I.'s aunt shows up on her doorstep as a result of the fire, after which the detective spends most of her time investigating the inner workings of the construction business, local politics, and the Chicago police. She is brought to a number of (violent) confrontations with friends and enemies as a result of her investigations. The final scene between the heroine and a close friend of her father offers one of the more powerful and emotionally charged scenes in recent detective fiction.

Among the five feminist writers of detective fiction identified in Kathleen Klein's The Woman Detective (Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, Susan Steiner, Sara Paretsky, and M. F. Beal), Grafton and Paretsky are the most widely sold and (arguably) the most popular. Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski is, the most popular feminist figure, though, as Klein makes clear, the heroines of all five authors make compromises between the ideology of feminism and the profession of the detective. Of the two, Grafton's Kinsey Millhone is a heroine who articulates to a lesser degree the feminist detective archetype I have been discussing.

It is true that V. I. Warshawski is in many ways similar to her hard-boiled ‘fathers.’ Like them, she operates in an urban setting; the narrative unfolds from her perspective and is filtered through her morality (a device employed by the tough guys in both narrative and film); she distrusts the organizations that run her city; she cherishes her freedom and independence; and she often finds herself in conflict with the very society that she seems destined to protect. However, those similarities quickly fade when one considers that the male detective is expected to operate outside the norms while supporting the phallocentric society of which he is the most obvious representative. The male dick, as it were, is respected within the system that his adversaries (the criminals) are trying to subvert, precisely because he is a tough-skinned macho womanizer who feeds on the verbal and physical onslaughts he faces from the criminals and the women he eventually overcomes. In true allegiance to patriarchal authority, the father-detective defends society by punishing the child-criminal and restoring patriarchal order to the home-city while at the same time existing for the most part in a kind of limbo between the criminal and the police force.

Conversely, as Klein makes clear, the female detective is chastised for operating outside a similar system because her very existence refutes that system which the male detective supports. The problem is even more complicated for the feminist detective in that (by implication) she ideologically opposes the system (patriarchy, in effect), but professionally upholds all that the system holds sacred (in solving the murder she works for the reimposition of patriarchal order and justice). In Burn Marks, for example, this conflict between ideology and profession becomes particularly problematic for Warshawski when a woman friend is involved in a construction-company scam partially because she has eschewed her radical roots and seems determined to enter into politics, the bastion of patronage and, until recently, phallocentric control. Through her investigation Warshawski learns that her friend has figuratively if not literally prostituted herself in order to enter and (she hopes) change the world of male-dominated politics. Warshawski shares the desire for change, but is forced to uphold the patriarchal laws and therefore expose her friend. Notwithstanding the conflict between ideology and profession in Paretsky's novels, Warshawski is one of the most ‘feminist’ female heroines created to date in mass-market novels because her female qualities are never overwhelmed by male qualities of brutality and immorality.

As Paretsky said before her reading in Chicago, the most powerful argument she makes for the ‘reworking’ of the archetypal detective lies in her desire to create a hard-boiled detective who is ‘both a woman and a complete professional … and who maintains her femininity even in the midst of a milieu which is violent and corrupt.’ The violent and corrupt city in which she lives often requires Warshawski to beat up her antagonists (Indemnity Only) or on occasion kill them (Burn Marks), which is not surprising in view of the oppression that she and, by reduction, all women face from the overwhelming physical power of men.

And while it is always men who invoke the brutality that causes Warshawski to react in kind (like the hero of the American western who only reacts to violence and is not the cause of it), it is almost always women to whom Warshawski turns in times of emotional need, times that are frequently brought on by the corruption, disrespect, or violence of men. She is not, however, the heroine of pop romance who periodically turns to other women as a way to escape men, but an intellectually powerful heroine who turns to other women because she is aware of her own vulnerability, because she is smart enough to be afraid when the odds are against her (which they always are, true to generic form), and because she is aware of the power that the community of women offers against ‘the system.’

The woman to whom Warshawski most often turns is Lotty Herschel, her ‘sister in the city.’ This vulnerability allows the detective to show traits that truly set her apart from the tough guys. In Lotty's presence Warshawski can show empathy and compassion (even for her adversaries), sensitivity to issues and individuals, and, most important, self-reflection, which often leads to self-condemnation, but more often reflects the important transformations that Campbell shows heroes must undergo. This connection with Lotty, whether she is seen as mother, sister, or confidante, is essential in allowing Warshawski to contemplate the departure and initiation (to use Campbell's terms) she has undergone, and to steel herself for the return or restoration of order—the accepted pattern for the hero, but none the less a difficult one for a feminist heroine in a phallocentric world like that of the hard-boiled detective.

This is Paretsky's essential departure from the archetypal detective imagined by Poe and put into mythological operation by Conan Doyle, Hammett, and Chandler. V. I. Warshawski has no rigid Code of the West or stigma of rugged individualism to which she must subscribe at all costs. Indeed, she has no past to which she can cling (both of her parents having died before the series begins); rather, she is isolated from her past at the same moment in which she is connected to the present. The family community she lost through the death of her parents is replaced by the community of women, a community which, unlike the earlier communities created by James and Cross, offers at least hope for a future wherein community rather than individualism is the driving force. It is consequential that Paretsky bends the gender of the traditional tough-guy hero of hard-boiled detective fiction to offer consumers of pop fiction a new model for the New Woman. We would do well to pay attention.

Gloria A. Biamonte (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Funny, Isn't It?: Testing the Boundaries of Gender and Genre in Women's Detective Fiction,” in Look Who's Laughing: Gender and Comedy, edited by Gail Finney, Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1994, pp. 231-51.

[In the following essay, Biamonte traces the use of humor in Paretsky's fiction and in the work of other women writers within the detective genre.]


My theory of detection resembles Julia Child's approach to cooking: Grab a lot of ingredients from the shelves, put them in a pot and stir, and see what happens.

V. I. Warshawski, Killing Orders

Surviving the numerous attempts on her life and the nearly ritual demolition of her apartment and car, private investigator V. I. Warshawski, better known as Vic to those close to her, is a bit more careful about her detecting than her glibly stated theory might suggest. With intelligence, toughness, tenderness, and, yes, a sense of humor, V. I. confronts corruption in the emotionally charged world of urban Chicago—a confrontation that brings her face to face with insurance companies, the medical establishment, the Catholic Church, building contractors, and, of course, local politicians. But V. I.'s success is often made sweeter because of the ongoing resistance she meets from the Chicago police, particularly her deceased parents’ old friend, Lieutenant Bobby Mallory. Though she finds herself in brutal and terrifying situations—bound in a ratty blanket that is floundering in a chemical-infested swamp (Blood Shot 1988); dragging her unconscious aunt through a burning building while her own eyes glaze over from the pain of a battered skull (Burn Marks 1990); experiencing the emotional devastation triggered by her growing awareness that a local hospital is complicit in the deaths of a young mother and her new-born child (Bitter Medicine 1987)—V. I. injects humor into these most gruesome of experiences with her comic perspective and her poignant wisecracking.

V. I.'s unflagging and penetrating wit does not, however, solely evoke the nervous laughter associated with black humor—the sort of humor that might seem most appropriate to the horrors she confronts:

What I wanted was to decamp for some remote corner of the globe where human misery didn't take such naked forms. Lacking funds for that, I could retire to my bed for a month. But then my mortgage bill would come and go without payment and eventually the bank would kick me out and then I'd have some naked misery of my own, sitting in front of my building with a bottle of Ripple to keep it all out of my head.

Neither are her, at times, scathing comments primarily noted for their sarcasm: “‘I've been trying to get you to tell me a few things for the last two weeks and you've been acting as though English was your second language and you weren't too fluent in it’” (Blood Shot). Nor are they simple attempts at comic relief, both for herself and the others involved in the grim brutalities of murder, fraud, deception, and poverty—as evidenced by V. I.'s flippant response when questioned about her role in an old man's suicide: “‘Thanks, Max. I appreciate the compliment. Most days I don't feel that powerful’” (Blood Shot). Rather, V. I.'s wit, while providing the distancing essential to these forms of humor, accomplishes a wider range of purposes, often acting as a form of social critique and serving as a vehicle for genre renovation.

Disguised as a monk in her attempt to understand the connection between Corpus Christi and the Ajax Insurance Company, V. I. tries to convince herself that she is unafraid:

Of course, a hard-boiled detective is never scared. So what I was feeling couldn't be fear. Perhaps nervous excitement at the threats in store for me. Even so, when Roger asked me, tentatively, if I wanted to go back to the Hancock with him, I assented without hesitation.

Self-mocking as these comments may seem, their sole purpose is not to elicit the reader's sympathy for this likeable detective's vulnerability. The comments verge on parody as they become genre-mocking, placing V. I. in a tradition, that of the hard-boiled detective, and then removing her from it by her ready assent to abscond with Roger. As Lizabeth Paravisini and Carlos Yorio suggest in their discussion of the duality of parodic detective fiction, parody offers

two texts within one: the parody itself and the parodied or target text: both present within the new text in a dialogical relationship … in parody we find two languages crossed with each other, two styles, two linguistic points of view—in short two speaking subjects.

By creating a dialogue between the traditionally perceived hard-boiled detective and the newly evolving, socially conscious professional, Sara Paretsky, V. I.'s creator, glances back while moving forward and, in so doing, transforms the detective figure—a transformation that her humor subtly encourages.

However, the hard-boiled detective is not the only aspect of the genre that undergoes change in V. I.'s world—change again demarcated by humor. Sara Paretsky admits that she is no Agatha Christie, nor does V. I. bear any resemblance to Sherlock Holmes. In trying to determine if a crime of passion is the motivating force behind Nancy Cleghorn's murder, V. I. ponders the facts: “Who waits two years to revenge himself on love gone sour? Outside Agatha Christie, that is” (Blood Shot). And while searching for clues through the toxic swamp surrounding Dead Stick Pond, V. I. decides

[t]here was nothing to be seen here, no trace of life or death. I headed slowly back down the path, stopping every few feet to inspect the bushes and grasses. It was a futile gesture, Sherlock Holmes would no doubt have spotted the telltale cigarette butt, the gravel from another county that didn't belong here, the fragment of a missing envelope. All I saw was the endless array of bottles, potato-chip bags, old shoes, coats, proving that Nancy was only one of many discarded bundles in the swamp.

Even though there are times when V. I. wishes for a “selfless Bunter” to “suffer hideous hardships” for her, she does not hope to emulate Peter Wimsey; rather, she would like to resemble Kinsey Milhone, a nod of sisterhood to Sue Grafton's contemporary private investigator:

To entertain myself while I waited I tried to calculate the expenses I'd incurred since starting to look for Caroline Dijak's old man. I've always been a little jealous of Kinsey Milhone's immaculate record-keeping; I didn't have receipts for meals or gas. Certainly not for cleaning up the Magli pumps, which was going to run close to thirty dollars.

Here the humor not only links V. I. to an alternate, evolving tradition of female investigators, but also removes her from the refined, aristocratic world of Dorothy L. Sayer's Wimsey, and places her in the middle-class world of dry-cleaning and budget-keeping.

V. I.'s self-conscious participation in the rejuvenated genre of detective fiction is only one of the areas highlighted by her penetrating wit. Her investigations take her throughout Chicago and its bordering neighborhoods—a charged landscape that cannot evade the transformative power of her observant gaze and reflections:

The decimation of Lebanon was showing up in Chicago as a series of restaurants and little shops, just as the destruction of Vietnam had been visible here a decade earlier. If you never read the news but ate out a lot you should be able to tell who was getting beaten up around the world.

First seeming funny, V. I.'s unusual idea of gleaning information on imperialist activity simply by choosing to dine out frequently provokes serious reflection on one of the less-touted reasons for America's growing multi-ethnic, multi-racial population. Clever but grimly humorous in her observations, V. I. suggests a connection between the shifting face of America's cultural diversity and the oppression experienced by Third World people across the globe.

An example from Paretsky's sixth novel, Burn Marks (1990), demonstrates the range of potentially rich terrain that humor can explore. While attempting to visit one of her Aunt Elena's hospitalized friends, V. I. receives “help” from Lotty's assistant who gets her into the hospital as a social worker:

I made a face as I thanked her. Social worker! It was an apt description of how I'd spent my time since Elena showed up at my door last week. Maybe it was time for me to turn Republican and copy Nancy Reagan. From now on when alcoholic or addicted pregnant strays showed up at my door, I would just say no.

Even imagining V. I. and Nancy Reagan together in the same room can evoke laughter without considering the absurdity of V. I. using Mrs. Reagan as a more-than-curious role model. But Paretsky takes the amusement caused by this bizarre juxtaposition of dissimilar women one step further by having V. I. incorporate Mrs. Reagan's drug prevention slogan “Just Say No” into her thoughts. V. I.'s integrity would balk at the idea of just saying no to someone approaching her for help, just as her mind, in calmer moments, would be repulsed by the thought of turning Republican. Highlighting the nearly complete ineffectiveness of the “Just Say No” campaign to halt drug usage among young people, the serious edge to V. I.'s “humorous” thoughts cannot go unnoticed, for even V. I. recognizes that she is a wit, “but with good judgment” (Burn Marks).

Clearly, Paretsky's humor functions on multiple levels, from the distancing of comic relief to the rejuvenation of parodied genre conventions to the highly politicized nature of her penetrating social commentary to the provocative self-examination of her biting sarcasm. The dialogue between “two speaking selves” created by parody evolves into several dialogues for Paretsky—dialogues not only between the traditionally perceived hard-boiled detective and the alternate, evolving tradition of female investigators, but also between V. I.'s feminist consciousness and the destructive and often morally bankrupt authority of monolithic institutions, and, finally, between V. I. and her continually evolving self. Working outward as social critique and inward as analytic tool, humor allows V. I. to enter into conversation with society and with herself, creating the multiple dialogues which function as “emancipatory strategies” in Paretsky's fiction.

Sara Paretsky is not, of course, the first writer of detective fiction to employ humor. From the cheerful ineptitude of Doyle's Watson to the bumbling self-effacement of Christie's Miss Marple to the wisecracking indifference of Hammett's Spade to the literary witticisms of Cross's Kate Fansler, humor has found a central place in a fiction marked by death, violence, and unimaginable atrocities. Even one of the very earliest female detectives, Anna Katharine Green's Miss Butterworth, a precursor of Christie's Miss Marple, uses her seemingly self-effacing comments to poke fun at her adventurous nature while simultaneously stressing the value of her observations. The double-edged nature of much of this humor reflects the duality that characterizes detective fiction. Moving back into the past to uncover a crime while moving stealthily into the future to recreate the story of its detection, writers of detective fiction must perform a careful balancing act—a delicate juggling of mystification and enlightenment. Describing this dual movement of detective fiction, Dennis Porter explores how in

the process of telling one tale a classic detective story uncovers another. It purports to narrate the course of an investigation, but the “open” story of the investigation gradually unravels the “hidden” story of the crime. In other words, the initial crime on which the tale of detection is predicated is an end as well as a beginning. It concludes the ‘hidden’ story of the events leading up to itself at the same time that it initiates the story of the process of detection.

Thus, detective fiction provides two stories: one absent but real, the other present but relatively insignificant.

Humor, too, often tells two tales, and it is the double-edged quality of humor that Emily Toth and Nancy A. Walker address in their discussions of American women's tradition of humorous writing, a tradition that dates back to the poetry of Anne Bradstreet. Though detective fiction does not, of course, belong squarely within the definition of humorous fiction, the elements of humor used by many of the female practitioners of the genre share several of the attributes delineated by Toth and Walker. Walker emphasizes the point that “to be a woman and a humorist is to confront and subvert the very power that keeps women powerless.” One way in which women humorists have confronted “this delicate balance between power and powerlessness” is by employing familiar stereotypes of women for the purpose of mocking those stereotypes. In doing so, the texts function, as do the texts of detective fiction, on two levels, “one that appears to endorse popular stereotypes of women, and another that points to the origins of these stereotypes in a culture that defines women in terms of their relationships with men.” With the double text of humor challenging cultural assumptions, women's humor is often used subversively to lay bare the forces of the dominant culture—the forces that have led to women's marginalization. Emily Toth describes this dual nature of women's humor as “a weapon, and as communion.” In this sense, humor acts to unite women against the social roles that imprison them.

Taking the discussion further is Judy Little's exploration of what she calls “renegade comedy,” comedy which “mocks the deepest possible norms,” comedy which

implies, or perhaps even advocates, a permanently inverted world, a radical reordering of social structures, a real rather than temporary and merely playful redefinition of sex identity, a relentless mocking of truths otherwise taken to be self-evident or even sacred.

Implicitly, agreeing with Walker's characterization of women's humor as “seek[ing] to correct a cultural imbalance” by emphasizing the “disparity between the ‘official’ conduct of women's lives and their ‘unofficial’ response to that conduct,” Little attempts to understand the origin of women's humorous impulse:

We can expect … especially in a time of social change, that the work of writers who perceive themselves as ‘outsiders,’ as persons assigned to the threshold of a world that is not theirs, will manifest the distinctive features of inversion, mocked hierarchies, communal festivity, and redefinition of sex identity. If the work of such writers is comic, it will be comedy that mocks the norm radically and perhaps generates hints and symbols of new myths.

Most interesting is Little's description of these women as on “the threshold,” a phrase that echoes William Stowe's description of detective fiction as “a literature of crisis, of borders, of the extreme.” Consciously or unconsciously, detective fiction attempts to render several fluctuating borders—borders where the pursuit of the criminal becomes a pursuit of self; where the numerous authorized and unauthorized “readings” of the absent story overlap, contradict, or create glaring gaps; where the text's ambiguity allows for the subversive speculations of author, detective, and reader. What Little proposes is that those on “the threshold”—in her case, women—create humor that extends beyond the targeting of the far-from-perfect rules of their culture to the creation of a new and different order. Laughter, evoked by blatant attack or subtle ridicule, threatens to become an act of creation. Humor that tests boundaries can establish them as well and, in so doing, create dis-ease in its listener/reader/watcher by altering the very space that it brings to its audience's attention.

The humor of those on “the threshold” serves to heighten this dis-ease and, when employed in detective fiction, a genre already well-equipped to render fluctuating boundaries, produces a richness only suggested in the opening discussion of Sara Paretsky's fiction. Not only does detective fiction infused with humor contain the abundant possibilities of the genre's double storyline and the pregnant uncertainty of determining who is pursuing whom, but the humorous vision adds to this potential “the ability to hold two contradictory realities in suspension simultaneously—to perform a mental balancing act that superimposes a comic version of life on the observable ‘facts.’” Clearly, exploring humor within detective fiction creates the possibility of multilayered readings—readings where the inherent doubleness of the genre is repeatedly magnified by the gaze from “the threshold,” sometimes “distorted” by the fun-house mirror of humor, and always made rich by an attentiveness to the female signature.


V. I. Warshawski's nod of sisterhood to Kinsey Milhone is a gesture worth investigating, for among those whom this nod could acknowledge are the early female investigators of Mary Roberts Rinehart. Rinehart began writing detective fiction when the genre was fully established as a fictional form—so established that Mark Twain was able to parody its conventions in his 1902 tale “A Double-Barrelled Detective Story.” Employing the humor that her biographer Jan Cohn describes as the “trademark” of all her mysteries, Rinehart's first novel in book form, The Circular Staircase (1908), launched her popular success. Rinehart, in fact, intended The Circular Staircase to be “a semi-satire on the usual pompous self-important crime story” (My Story). Demonstrating her belief in the rejuvenating power of humor, Rinehart hoped that The Circular Staircase would help “the crime story to grow up”—a growing up that would shift the emphasis away from the puzzling clues to “people and their motivations.” But Rinehart goes further than she hoped. In The Circular Staircase, Rinehart succeeds in using her humor to interrupt the text, create a newly defined narrative space, and initiate a dialogue about cultural assumptions concerning gender. Most important among Rinehart's contributions to the genre is her creation of amateur detective, Rachel Innes, a middle-aged, unmarried woman, whose proclivity toward involvement in mysterious events makes her an obvious descendant of Anna Katherine Green's Amelia Butterworth.

Rachel Innes steps into the literary world with a “let's set the record straight” tone—a tone that immediately places her story in dialogue with the “garbled and incomplete” newspaper accounts surrounding the Sunnyside mysteries. But the confrontational mode that could easily erupt from Rachel's annoyance at her exclusion from the public record is quickly lost in the detached, almost fairy-tale like opening of her story:

This is the story of how a middle-aged spinster lost her mind, deserted her domestic gods in the city, took a furnished house for the summer out of town, and found herself involved in one of those mysterious crimes that keep our newspapers and detective agencies happy and prosperous.

Significantly, Rachel's adventures begin with a move—a move which this “objective” opening voice deems somewhat insane for it involves the desertion of domesticity and the involvement in crimes that, strangely enough, result in happiness and prosperity for some. That Rachel Innes intends ridicule in these lines grows clear as she quickly abandons this detached mode of recitation and opens the second paragraph with the urgency of her individual voice: “And then the madness seized me.” Rachel's abrupt switch from the third person to the first hints at the two realms of experience that simultaneously inform her narrative—two realms which include not only the public demeanor and the private response, but, important to this discussion, the dialogue between the anticipated and the actual, between the observable “facts” and Rachel's comic vision of them.

But Rachel's actual feelings about her summer “vacation” at the rented Sunnyside estate remain initially hidden within the sarcastic tone of her narrative. Though she informs us of her luck in surviving the summer months and of her repeated threats to return to Sunnyside when her nerve-frayed servant Liddy “begins to go around with a lump in her throat,” we do not immediately grasp the extent to which humor or seriousness dominates Rachel's tone. Even Rachel's emphasis on her duty “to tell what [she] knows” and her ease with the narrative convention of re-telling the tale is somewhat undermined by the caricature-like portraits she paints of herself and her rather untraditional family.

At the center of this “family” is Rachel's comic “marriage” to her servant Liddy—a relationship held together by an incessant bickering that results in Liddy's numerous threats to leave and Rachel's equally numerous threats to discharge her. Like Rachel, Liddy is never at a loss for words and clearly does not hesitate to state her mind, even, or perhaps especially, when she knows her pointed comments will irritate Rachel. Liddy is only too happy to “oracularly” inform Rachel that she has been tricked into leaving the room by two young lovers—something Rachel refuses to believe:

‘Nonsense!’ I said brusquely. ‘I must have known enough to leave them. It's a long time since you and I were in love, Liddy, and I suppose we forget.’

Liddy sniffed.

‘No man ever made a fool of me,’ she replied virtuously.

‘Well, something did,’ I retorted.

Marking the characteristic note of their relationship, Rachel and Liddy's verbal jostling provides the unrelenting background “music” of the narrative. But even though Liddy informs Rachel that people who move to strange houses with unknown servants “needn't be surprised if they wake up some morning and find their throats cut,” and Rachel instructs Liddy that the liquid diet she required after Rachel applied carbolic acid to her toothache provided “a splendid rest for her stomach,” these two women cannot “get along for an hour without the other.” Transgressing the anticipated boundary between employer and employee, between the wealthy and the working class, Rachel and Liddy form an unusual alliance, using their sarcastic humor to create a dialogue where none might exist.

Completing this family group are Rachel's nephew and niece, Halsey and Gertrude, whom she has cared for since her brother died—an undertaking that suggests an ableness at assuming maternal responsibilities. However, we are once again left to question our expectation of this ableness, as we learn that with motherhood, as she says, “thrust” upon her, Rachel sends her niece and nephew away to good schools, making her responsibility “chiefly postal.” Summers are then transformed into the time of a rather unique spring cleaning—a time when Rachel takes her “foster motherhood out of its nine months’ retirement in camphor.” This unorthodox description of motherhood, even “foster motherhood,” causes us, at first, to doubt the genuine warmth Rachel feels toward her adopted children, but soon it becomes obvious that rather than suggesting ambivalent feelings about Halsey and Gertrude, Rachel desires to amuse her listeners with the seductive allure of her increasingly communal humor and, in so doing, gain an audience for her alternative tale of the summer's events—a tale that transforms already circulated texts while it emerges as a vehicle for Rachel's self-definition.

Creation of her amusing persona is essential to Rachel's skillful development of a relationship with her readers. Added to her bickerings with her maid—“Liddy's nerves are gone, she said, since that awful summer, but she has enough left, goodness knows!”—and her awareness of the shortcomings of her “foster motherhood” are Rachel's funny observations about herself as well as human nature generally. Driving with Halsey has been an education for Rachel: “I learned how to keep my eyes off the speedometer, and, after a time, never to stop to look at the dogs one has run down. People are apt to be unpleasant about their dogs.” Hardly expressing appropriate empathy over the possible injury and loss of loved pets, Rachel shields her fear of Halsey's excessive speed with her somewhat grim humor while simultaneously tearing down the expectations of her increasingly amused readers. Exceeding the goal of amusement, Rachel's skillfully woven narrative gradually but purposefully erodes our expectations of her, for later in the narrative Rachel's actions contradict these earlier words when we find her standing on the roof yelling at the newspaper boy, who has just thrown a rock at her adored cat Beulah. Rachel's seeming disassociation from herself is funny in this rather harmless instance. But this clever disassociation transforms the humor of this situation into a disembodied voice, an “unauthorized” discourse that whispers along the margins of the text, circulates between the previously circulated newspaper accounts of the summer's events, and slowly reconstitutes its speaking self and, consequently, her listeners/readers’ perceptions of her.

Unlike Paretsky's contemporary professional detective, Rachel needs humor to protect and to create her evolving self. In a sense, humor becomes her expanding cocoon, enabling her to create a larger space within which to survive as a woman. V. I., possessing a more fully evolved sense of herself and a developed social consciousness, employs humor quite differently, using it to cut through the protective veneer that encases corrupt social and political institutions. As much a tool as a weapon, V. I.'s humor allows her to critique her progressively destructive society and to evaluate her own potential for changing this threatening environment. V. I.'s humor moves her both outward and inward; Rachel's, however, moves her, understandably, in one direction, for Rachel still needs to create livable parameters within which to thrive—only then will she be able to determine upon what ground to exercise her newly discovered self. …

Comparing Rachel's dialogues with V. I.'s once again underlines the vastly different intents of their humor, in large part a reflection of the eighty years which separate them. Rachel's dialogues are self-referential, often focusing on how we, as readers, will perceive her in relation to societal expectations of her behavior. V. I., using her humor to advertise rather than shield what some may perceive as her “transgressions,” and never employing humor to neutralize her ideas, behavior, or beliefs, directs our thoughts to larger issues, yet issues that directly affect both her and us—is health care truly healthy and does that care extend to everyone?; is the Catholic Church involved in an unholy communion with big business?; is political influence playing a deadly game close to home? Unlike Rachel's, the dialogues which V. I.'s wit initiates do not always, or even often, revert back to her. Rachel's dialogues must, however, for unlike V. I., Rachel needs to understand, create, and determine her own potential as a free-moving self before she can direct her gaze and her conversation elsewhere. …

Perhaps, we will even find ourselves nodding in agreement with V. I. Warshawski's witty self-reflection on the likelihood of the police following a promising lead: “Maybe I'd be the first woman on the moon—stranger things have happened” (Burn Marks). And they do.

Kathleen Gregory Klein (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Watching Warshawski,” in It's a Print!: Detective Fiction from Page to Screen, edited by William Reynolds and Elizabeth Trembley, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994, pp. 145-56.

[In the following essay, Klein asserts that the commercialization of Paretsky's character V. I. Warshawski in the film of the same name is the main reason the film fails to live up to the novels.]

Hollywood Pictures’ V. I. Warshawski (1991) transforms plots in which Sarah Paretsky carefully weaves professional and personal stories, and where detection is a metaphor for living life, into a simplistic—and essentially unresolved—linear narrative. In the process, Paretsky's detective, V. I. Warshawski, is objectivized and fetishized from an independent, complex woman into a passive object of male desire.

Hollywood Pictures’ release of V. I. Warshawski starring Kathleen Turner did not prove to be one of the hot-weather blockbusters of the summer of 1991. In my neighborhood it barely lasted a week. Overall, the movie grossed only $11 million; neither Turner nor anyone else associated with the film was even nominated for an Academy Award. In short, it was not a commercial success. Nonetheless, I want to argue that the movie was made with exactly that kind of success in mind and that such intentions made impossible the faithful transfer of Sara Paretsky's character and plots from fiction to film.

Seen in the novels from the inside out, a first-person feminist narrator of her life, her profession, and her ideology, V. I. Warshawski is seen on film through the camera eye, an ostensibly objective, omniscient narrator. Objectivized and fetishized by the “male gaze” of technological apparatus—the camera eye—the previously independent and self-defined V. I. becomes “other,” a manifestation of the gaze, and a product of patriarchal capitalism. The plots in which Paretsky so carefully weaves professional and personal stories, where individuals become victims of institutions, and where detection is a metaphor for living life become, instead, a simplistic—and essentially unresolved—linear narrative.

The V. I. Warshawski of Sara Paretsky's novels is a complex woman far from the standard definitions of the hard-boiled detective as a man isolated—by choice or necessity—from his community. V. I.'s fictional history identifies her, rather, as a woman of her communities. She is tied into the city of Chicago through her childhood, extended family, police (and criminal) contacts, and her earlier work as a public defender. She is connected with the feminist community through activism in a student underground abortion referral network and through her continuing rejection of gender role stereotypes. Disappointed by most of her relatives, after the deaths of her parents she builds an extended family bound by ties of affection and shared values.

Using V. I.'s attachment to these communities, Sara Paretsky creates plots in which the personal and the professional—the communities and the criminal—intersect to draw Vic deeply into her role as detective. Only the first of her cases begins in the conventional style with a paying client hiring her for a job; and even this case in Indemnity Only turns out to have family connections. The other novels all focus first on the “family” and are then enlarged to encompass the crime and the institutional world which it threatens. In a striking departure from typical detective novels, Paretsky's conclusions seldom resolve the crime or the underlying institutional arrogance; there is no return to order at the end of these novels because, as the readers clearly understand, there was no edenic status quo before the crime. Dr. Lottie Herschel, V. I.'s closest friend, lives a perfect metaphor for the society in which the novels are set: a Holocaust survivor whose family died in the concentration camps, she operates a clinic for Chicago's poor. Power and powerlessness, the haves and the have-nots: no one, certainly not the lone doctor or the lone detective who mediates between the two extremes, can eliminate either.

The interplay of these communities creates the structure for both narrative and plot in the seven Warshawski novels: Paretsky consciously chooses to make personal and professional stories intersect. The novel which most closely resembles the film is Deadlock, the second in the series. In it, V. I. chooses to investigate the apparently accidental death of her cousin, the former hockey player Boom Boom Warshawski. She follows his trail through the Eudora Grain Company where he had been hired after an ankle-shattering accident left him unable to skate. There he was alternately labeled an accident, a suicide, or a troublemaker. Vic's motive for “hiring” herself to check out his death begins in guilt for not having responded quickly to his last telephone message. What she finds, not surprisingly, is murder, betrayal, explosions, capitalism gone amuck, and a hint of insanity.

As the novel develops two story lines—the criminal and the personal—the narrative also carries two plots—the original criminal activity and V. I.'s detection of the crime. The former is fairly straightforward: V. I. determines that Boom Boom was murdered by Clayton Phillips, a vice-president of Eudora Grain, to hide evidence of invoice tampering which would prove fraud and theft. The detection plot is considerably more complicated. V. I. begins to chase the paper trail of evidence from Eudora Grain to Grafalk Steamship and its owner, Niels Grafalk. Her investigation leads Warshawski to “stow away” on a grain freighter on the Great Lakes as she tries to interview sailors who had worked with her cousin. During V. I.'s process of discovery, nine additional people are killed: a security guard at Boom Boom's apartment building, the driver of a car hit by Vic when her brakes fail, four crew members on an exploded ship, the debt-ridden hockey player who planted the explosives, and the two villains, Clayton Phillips and Niels Grafalk. Vic's own life is clearly in jeopardy on three specific occasions: her car brake lines are cut; she is on the exploded ship; and she is discovered on his sailboat by Niels Grafalk. Along the way she tackles Phillips's grasping wife, Jeannine, and Grafalk's mistress, Paige Carrington, who had agreed to become Boom Boom's lover in order to keep tabs on him. When Vic puts together all the pieces of the case, she shares the complete story with Claire Grafalk, Niels's wife. This pattern of information sharing, begun in Indemnity Only with Anita McGraw, represents a deliberate expanding of the knowledge base and an extension of her range of “communities.”

Warshawski's decision to share information typically reserved to the detective and client marks one aspect of the feminist changes in the formula which Paretsky's seven novels reflect. Other changes revolve around both the protagonist and the plots. Even though she sees herself as a “Doña Quixote,” attempting to right wrongs against enormous odds, V. I. does not ordinarily impose her own code of morality; rather than create a heroic individualistic detective, Paretsky has imagined her protagonist expanding the collective base of power through her inclusive style. With the novels’ villains so firmly entrenched within the power system (corporate business, unions, the Chicago political system, the Catholic church, the medical community, and the police), no lone avenger—no naive Don Quixote—could hope to have any marked impact. Against criminals entrenched within and protected by the system, she concentrates on helping ordinary people.

And then there is the film. Despite having access to a complex character and range of plot and narrative lines developed through seven novels, producer Jeffrey Lurie and director Jeff Kanew chose to flatten V. I. Warshawski into a one-dimensional mold and park her in the middle of a no-dimensional plot. Disney Studios and Hollywood Pictures bought the rights to one of the most provocative feminist private eyes in contemporary detective fiction and threw away everything about her which mattered. They turned a hot property into cold cuts. What happened to V. I. Warshawski can be answered, albeit in a roundabout way, by looking at the film through a feminist lens.

Because an already well-developed theory and methodology of film criticism was in place, feminist film theory developed early, shortly after feminist theory and criticism of literature and history. According to Annette Kuhn, “1972 in fact seems to be a watershed year for feminist film theory.” Both New York and Toronto held Women's Film Festivals in the early 1970s; three books and two journals of feminist film criticism as well as some of the most important articles in the field were published during the first half of the decade. Three central concerns of feminist film theory—from its beginnings to the present—illuminate the filmic impulses behind the production of V. I. Warshawski: representation, absence, and the “gaze.”

The typical form of mainstream “Hollywood” cinema is what Annette Kuhn calls classic realism which articulates its characters as narrative function. Such a model leans heavily on the persuasive implication of normative behavior or so-called natural order. Such films, like novels whose narrative trajectory they borrow, rely on the audience's acceptance of most of their elements as previously encoded knowledge; thus the audience is freed to address only the unique elements the directors and producers wish to foreground. But such expectations of and by audiences discount the presence and impact of ideology. If, as feminists, cultural critics, and theorists have insisted, dominant cinema is part of the ideological process of making meaning—or the process of making ideological meaning—then audiences must denaturalize the filmic text. Feminist film and cultural critics have been most insistent about this necessity because of the oppressive nature of the culturally dominant representation of women.

The continuing representation of Woman to meet patriarchal ideology rather than the authentic presentation of women—unpacked by numerous film and fictional critics in their readings of “images of women”—raises questions about whose natural order is being served. We see that transgressive women are punished either by being killed or driven insane in nineteenth-century fiction, or limited to basic biological functions in the modern day Gilead of The Handmaid's Tale, or fly off into the sunset and certain death like Thelma and Louise; if not punished, they are recuperated to traditional family roles, like Mildred Pierce. But what's the difference?

In short, as E. Ann Kaplan puts it: “Women in film, thus, do not function as signifiers for a signified (a real woman) as sociological critics have assumed, but signifier and signified have been elided into a sign that represents something in the male unconscious.” In classic cinema, the absence of real women as objects of the male unconscious is frequently carried to extremes where even the representation of Woman is absent or excluded. The complete erasure of women from realistic cinema occurs in war movies, prison stories, and male buddy or bonding films. The virtual absence of women can be found in westerns with their token schoolmarm or saloon girl, in adventure films where secretaries and short-term sex objects appear briefly, or in gangster and other corporate-male movies where wives and mistresses are merely window dressing. The absent-while-present equivalent is at work when women or sex are occasions of male actions, catalysts to be used and forgotten: victims and even murderers in crime stories and revenge films or films where women in traditional male positions are brought down by culturally dominant mores. As Budd Boetticher, a cult director of Hollywood B Westerns, states: “What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fears she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.” Psychological theories of representation would argue that all women are absent; only eroticized fetishes for male satisfaction remain in the two-dimensional images on screen.

The theory of the gaze, first enunciated by Laura Mulvey in 1975, is psychoanalytic in its base; it draws on Freud's analysis of both voyeurism and scopophilia (defined by E. Ann Kaplan as “male pleasure in his own sexual organ transferred to pleasure in watching other people have sex”) leading to fetishism. Writing of voyeurism, Kaplan continues:

The original eye of the camera, controlling and limiting what can be seen, is reproduced by the projector aperture that lights up one frame at a time; and both processes (camera and projector) duplicate the eye at the keyhole, whose gaze is confined by the keyhole “frame.” The spectator is obviously in the voyeur position when there are sex scenes on the screen, but screen images of women are sexualized no matter what the women are doing literally, or what kind of plot may be involved.

This inevitable eroticization of women comes, according to Mulvey, from the three forms of the male gaze: as the camera, as the characters within the film, and as the spectator who mimics those first two gazes. Let me further summarize Mulvey's reading of the visual pleasure worked out in “illusionistic narrative film”: first, the voyeuristic fantasies of the audience are heightened by the film's self-contained existence and the traditionally darkened theatre which promote the necessary sense of separation and secrecy. Second, the traditional role of women as representations to-be-looked-at meshes neatly with the dichotomy of male/active and female/passive. The spectator's necessarily active “look” is identified with the filmic “look” of the strong male character(s), “so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence.” But—and here's the serious downside for the otherwise satisfied male spectator—in psychological terms the female always represents an absence: the lack of penis; to represent sexual difference, she must also evoke castration anxiety. The male unconscious chooses one of two escape routes: voyeurism, by reenacting the original trauma; or fetishization which turns the represented figure into a manageable object. The latter route, Mulvey's fetishistic scopophilia, attempts to disavow the possibilities of castration altogether through gaining power over the representation of the absence of a penis. Mulvey concludes:

It is the place of the look that defines cinema, the possibility of varying it and exposing it. … Going far beyond highlighting a woman's to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself. Playing on the tension between film as controlling the dimension of time (editing, narrative) and film as controlling the dimension of space (changes in distance, editing), cinematic codes create a gaze, a world, and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire.

And, as Teresa de Lauretis writes, in classic Hollywood cinema, “the male is the measure of desire.”

No doubt the male measure of desire goes a long way to explain the choice of Kathleen Turner as protagonist-hero-private-eye V. I. Warshawski. No interview or story about Turner misses the opportunity to refer to her sultry, sexy role in Body Heat even though subsequent roles have offered her a much wider range of opportunities; it is as though she is defined by that image. The commercial appeal of a star-name on the product and the publicity which could be garnered by pairing “body heat” and “private eye” was thoroughly exploited by Hollywood Pictures. After all, the original (working) title for the film was Fully Loaded. No feminist—film theorist or not—should have been surprised by the result. From the moment the newspaper advertising began, the only misleading information was the credit phrase “Based upon the V. I. Warshawski novels by Sara Paretsky.”

The full-page newspaper ads, also reproduced on movie-theatre billboards, trumpet the star's name across the top in large, bold, upper case lettering. Similar type at the bottom announces the film's title, V. I. Warshawski; the bracketing placement of the two, similar type and bold print, imply the pairing statement used in other publicity contexts: “KATHLEEN TURNER is V. I. WARSHAWSKI.” Between these two names stands a full-body shot of Turner/Warshawski against a background of the letter “W” as if it were cutting through to the gray, gritty background of a large city; on the billboards and video cover, the “W” is scarlet. Turner/Warshawski stands, in a dark, short-skirted suit and very high heels facing forward; her legs are spread apart to match the lower edges of the “W” and she holds a large gun pointing upward, level with her eyes, off to her left side. She stares directly out of the picture. The pose is explicit: the viewer focuses immediately on the white space between her legs which is also the space between the two lower points of the “W.” Both the “W” and her legs are cut off before the crotch by the slim, thigh-length skirt she wears; but the viewer's eye completes the image. The two incomplete triangles rest on each other, simultaneous and contiguous, ending at the acute angle at her crotch where the triangle (point down, of course) often employed to symbolize women's sexuality begins.

Were Turner/Warshawski holding the gun in front of her body, braced with both hands in the now familiar stance of cops and private eyes from every television show and movie, the message of her open position might be misread; but here there can be no doubt that this visual emphasis on the space between her legs is meant to titillate. The upraised gun is placed graphically in one of the open “V's” forming the top of the “W,” coming up directly from the point of the triangle into the open space. One hand is gripped around the gun and on this wrist Turner/Warshawski appears to be wearing a bracelet or watch; the other hand is held down by her side, fingers spread in a more conventionally feminine gesture. Finally, the triangles of the “W” and her legs are matched by the V-necked blouse and suit jacket Turner/Warshawski wears.

Should the newspaper reader be unable to deconstruct the visual meaning, the ad makes explicit its message. Immediately under the figure and above the name V. I. WARSHAWSKI in dark, easily visible type are the phrases “Killer eyes. Killer legs. Killer instincts.” Below the movie's title one reads, “A private detective with a name as tough as she is.” Having seen the eyes on a level with the phallic gun and observed the widely spread legs, the reader is reminded again of them with the slang adjective “killer.” Matched with “instincts,” a tough name and a tough person, the message is twofold: most obviously, V. I. is defined as someone to be wary of. More subtly, she is posed as a challenge; how tough is she? In this representation of the detective as “killer” and “Woman,” the two contradictions are resolved in the quasi-shooter, completely sexual stance: spike heels on widely spread-open legs. The woman/private eye is an oxymoron graphically and verbally exposed. This is an ad for a movie made to sell; and its audience is only too clearly encoded from the outset.

The film's absences are, as might be expected, far less obvious than the blatantly sexual come-on of its advertising. What's missing is, by definition, hard to see. And by the definitions of the feminist film critics cited earlier, V. I. Warshawski might seem to be among the least guilty of new releases: after all, it features a woman as the hero-protagonist; and, unconventionally, it does not seem to show her as male-defined. Professionally, Warshawski usurps the traditional male role, in fact, all the male roles: protagonist, hero, detective, private eye, crime fighter, shooter, and sexual actor. But there are absences; in this film they are two-fold. One is marked by an erasure, a disappearance; the other by a presence. For the V. I. Warshawski of Paretsky's novels has a well-defined ethnic background which plays an important part in defining her character and personality; and she is child-free, no less significant a factor in explaining her subjectivity.

Film adaptations of novels have to consider the extent to which readers of the original works carry impressions of the text—plot, setting, characters—with them into the movie theatre. Sara Paretsky comments on the transformation of her character: “V. I. is about 5 foot 8, with short dark hair, gray eyes and Italian-Polish features … Kathleen Turner doesn't look a bit like her. Serious fans of the book are upset that Turner is in the role, but I think when they see the final result they'll be happy. At least I hope so.” The negation of Warshawski's ethnicity by the producers’ decision (initially at Tri-Star Productions and later with Disney Studios) to cast the blonde, “all-American” Turner has two significant effects. The first is more global; the American look is defined as blonde, blue-eyed, and not recognizably ethnic. Vic is the embodiment of the cheerleader Peggy Sue fantasizing an exciting grown-up life. The rest of the casting also denies American multi-ethnic/cultural diversity to stay firmly white except in throwaway roles. The second effect of Turner/Warshawski's lack of ethnicity is to make her average; the contributions of her Jewish-Italian mother and polish father—both major influences on her upbringing in the novels—are erased. This erasure is not neutral; it does not leave a space where the audience might interpolate its own background information but marks an absence of ethnicity which in contemporary America is a defining characteristic of its own.

The absence of natural maternity for V. I. is similarly marked. In Of Woman Born, her study of motherhood as both social institution and personal experience, Adrienne Rich concludes that the single most important cultural element defining women is the capacity to bear children; and, she continues, the fact that all women are potential mothers is more important than the reality that some women never have children. Because of the oxymoron implicit in the premise of V. I. Warshawski—a woman private eye—the producers solved the dilemma of how to keep Turner/Warshawski's femininity sufficiently foregrounded to compete with her gun by giving her a child, in fact, a thirteen-year-old daughter, Boom Boom's daughter Kat. V. I.'s encounter with the soon-to-be-killed Boom Boom moves her quickly from bar pick-up, to involuntary baby-sitter, to employee of her young charge, to mother substitute; the girl's natural mother is so self-centered that audiences are doubly impressed by V. I.'s caring attention and shared wisdom: “Never underestimate a man's ability to underestimate a woman's.” The script, as a consequence, erases the child-free woman; it concludes that inasmuch as V. I. has unaccountably neglected to fulfill this vital aspect of her potential, even a temporary child is better than none. The film's final scene in which V. I. and her too-visible lover Murray decide to shield the girl from her mother's treachery is a clear-cut triumph of the on-going sentimentality about parents and children, with Vic and Murray as mom and dad; by contrast, throughout the novels, Warshawski consistently shares information, especially the painful kind, with those who have a right to know. From start to finish, the kid is a studio cop-out in the face of a potentially strong woman in an unconventional role.

The gaze of the spectator which turns the female character into the representation of male desire—a sex object—is immediately apparent in this film. In the dark, the viewer watches as a camera/projector frames scenes designed to evoke pleasure. What that viewer sees almost immediately is a female body offered up to the male gazes within the film as a signal of how to watch the film. Following quickly on the establishing shots of Chicago, the camera tracks V. I. getting out of bed to go jogging. Thus far, the camera and the viewer are the carriers of the “gaze”; since a woman getting out of bed is an already established social sign, the first scene is anything but neutral. The next two scenes complete the clear-cut articulation of Turner/Warshawski as a fetishized object. While jogging outdoors, V. I. encounters a group of male joggers, apparently college students/athletes going in the opposite direction; they stare to the point of turning around and jogging backwards to continue looking at her. To emphasize their objectification of her—and their general crassness—they make hooting animal sounds at her. With their disappearance, the camera takes over their role, focusing on her bare, running legs. When her legs and running shoes are replaced by stockings and spike heels, the camera pans up.

If the first look duplicates the college students’ gaze, the second is explicitly linked to the look of a prospective client with whom V. I. is seen subsequently. That he too is explicitly vulgar—she's perfect for the case because, according to him, she's a “female dick”—ties the two episodes together verbally as the camera unifies them visually. Immediately and economically, the audience is instructed how to view the film: the spectator's gaze fetishizes Turner/Warshawski; she becomes an object “to-be-looked-at.” She is merely a body whose representation valorizes male desire and negates authentic female experience; in the way the gaze is psychoanalytically encoded, the actress and the role are essentially irrelevant, becoming only vehicles to carry the gaze.

Two subsequent episodes within the film's first 15 minutes carry the message of Warshawski/Turner's “to-be-looked-at-ness.” When she returns to her apartment (coincidentally finding Murray ensconced without her permission thanks to a stolen key), V. I. takes a bath in an old-fashioned tub. Her first viewer is the film audience, followed in quick succession by Murray, Kat, and Boom Boom himself. The girl's question, “Are you fucking my dad?” reinforces the sexually objectified role Warshawski/Turner has been seen in up to that point, and the parade of gazers through her bathroom intensifies the apparent protagonist's function as a visual fetish. Moments later—after the departure of Murray and Boom Boom followed by a little smart-mouthed kid talk—Kat leaves to find and help her father. Apparently taking her role as detective-baby-sitter-mother seriously, V. I. chases after her—in her underwear and bathrobe. While in a cab, she slips out of the robe and into a dinner dress. (How the dress comes to be in the cab is too silly to explain.) The shot-reverse-shot makes clear the function of this episode: the cabdriver's eyes are seen in the rearview mirror; then, V. I. is seen undressing, in her bra, and slipping on the dress in the back seat; the cabdriver's eyes in the rearview mirror return. When V. I. wisecracks that he's getting a look instead of a tip, the clear implication is that they've made a fair exchange: the body/money economy is satisfied. These four episodes in the early portion of the film establish rapidly and effectively the real function of the hero(ine). While she may call herself a detective, she is there “to-be-looked-at”; anything else is both incidental and coincidental. Because every significant male figure in the film—Murray, her father's old friend Lt. Mallory, Boom Boom's murdering brother, Boom Boom himself, and smalltime crime boss Earl Smeeson—reinforces her status as the representation of a gender role, whether fetish, sex object, or wife/mother, the audience is never allowed to forget the lesson of the introductory scenes. V. I. Warshawski need not act to fulfill her function in this film; she is there to be viewed. She need only appear; it does not matter whether she is seen as V. I. Warshawski, Kathleen Turner, a detective, or a woman, so long as she is “seen.”

The point of all this? In Raymond Bellour's analysis of the first scenes of Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie and Psycho, he draws some conclusions about American films generally: “a number of precise analyses (of Hawkes’ films, of Minelli, of Lang, of westerns, of musical comedies, of horror films, films of the fantastic, etc.) show clearly that the central place assigned to the woman is a place where she is figured, represented, inscribed in the fiction through the logical necessity of a general representation of the subject of desire in the film, who is always, first and last, a masculine subject.” The desiring subject in V. I. Warshawski is no single male protagonist but rather the entire male cast of the film; in this role, they stand in for the entire audience, male in its desire and in its gaze. Neither Sara Paretsky's independent character nor Kathleen Turner's star status nor V. I. Warshawski's lead role can rescue V. I. Warshawski from its commercial parameters and its consequent failure.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 20 June 1994)

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SOURCE: “Books of the Times: The Wet Underbelly of Chicago,” in New York Times, June 20, 1994.

[In the following review, Lehmann-Haupt complains that Paretsky's Tunnel Vision lacks a satisfying ending and that the plot suffers from a lack of complexity.]

Just when work is scarce and bills are going unpaid, a client asks Vic to contribute her free time to finding out why a certain bank has suddenly withdrawn its support of a project to provide low-cost housing for single mothers. And to top off a bad day, Vic is obliged to attend a dinner party for the rich and powerful.

But adversity is the spice of Vic's life, as readers may know from following her misadventures in thrillers including Bitter Medicine,Burn Marks and Guardian Angel. And each of the glitches in her day results in an unpleasant payoff. When she descends to the basement of her office building to turn the failed power back on, she finds a woman with her three undernourished children who turns out to be in flight from an abusive husband.

When Vic begins to inquire why the bank has withdrawn its financing, she runs into mounting resistance culminating in her client's sudden request to drop the investigation. And the couple who give the fancy dinner party, Fabian Messenger, a law professor, and Deirdre, his socially ambitious wife, behave abominably. Fabian bullies his children, particularly the eldest, Emily; Deirdre gets drunk and makes a scene. And when Vic later returns to their house to fetch her forgotten overcoat, she overhears Fabian abusing Deirdre verbally and punctuating his remarks with “a loud smack, hand on flesh.”

As fate and clever plotting would have it, these three unpleasant incidents have hidden links, and as Vic sets about to uncover them she walks into her office to find Deirdre Messenger dead with her head bashed in. Once Vic persuades the police that she is not the culprit, their suspicion shifts to Deirdre's mousy daughter, Emily, in whose room a baseball bat “covered with a dried, scabby mess” is found hidden.

But Vic, ever the champion of the lowly, suspects more powerful perpetrators, possibly even whoever doesn't want her to investigate the single-mothers' finance deal. As she works her way up the chain of Chicago's charity-corporate command, she finds herself at the same time descending lower into the city's physical plant in search of the homeless woman who may have seen Deirdre Messenger's murderer. Finally, when a leak from the Chicago River threatens to flood the city's elaborate system of underground tunnels, Vic enters a dangerous world she never knew about before.

The image of flooding tunnels in Tunnel Vision is an effective touch, suggesting as it does both the corruption of the city's power and the deluge of irrational passion that are the novel's main themes. And: to clean up the mess she has encountered, Vic must immerse herself in filth.

What doesn't work so well is the way Ms. Paretsky tries to play on our presumed sympathy for the poor and oppressed, and on our hostility to the rich and powerful. A two-dimensional world unfolds in Tunnel Vision, a world in which the poor, the weak, the young, the old, the female, the single and the black tend to be good, and the rich, the strong, the middle-aged, the male, the married and the WASPish are likely to be evil.

Not that plausibility precludes a fictional vision in which battered wives and children are oppressed by psychopathic husbands who in turn are abetted by Freudian psychoanalysts insistent that the victims are just imagining things. You only wish that this world didn't seem so monolithic and that Warshawski wasn't so depressed by it. As she broodingly reflects at one point, “When I thought about all the men beating on women, beating on their daughters, beating on each other, I couldn't imagine my efforts to intervene as anything but futile.”

You wish that for variety the story contained at least one happily married parent, or a generous rich man, or a moral individual of power. You wish that the main villain wasn't so crude as to say to Vic: “I don't know how you stay in business, Warshawski—I really don't. You seem to reason with your endocrines instead of your synapses.” You wish that another bad guy didn't end up with a bullet “in the groin,” even if only because of what Vic calls “a lucky shot.” As she explains, “it hadn't been possible to aim under the circumstances.” And you wish that the story's final payoff were more satisfying, that there were a little more complexity to all the evil in the book.

Still, V. (for Victoria) I. (for Iphigenia) Warshawski remains an appealing character, a soft-boiled detective who ages with time, who bruises when punched and who still misses her mother, who died when Vic was a child. Best of all, like most people good or bad, she gets mad when pushed around or patronized, and goes to work determined to get even.

Patricia Craig (review date 21 October 1994)

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SOURCE: “Female Virtues,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 21, 1994, p. 20.

[In the following review, Craig discusses the “female virtues” of the protagonists in Sue Grafton's K Is for Killer and Paretsky's Tunnel Vision.]

There is a moment in the latest Sue Grafton novel, K is for Killer, when the heroine Kinsey Millhone leafs through some back numbers of the magazine Family Circle and finds herself bemused: “To me, it was like reading about life on an alien planet.” What is confronting her, causing distaste and a rueful incomprehension, is a flawless domestic world of beauty aids, floor-cleaners, children and home cooking. Kinsey herself—along with Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski—embodies a kind of female virtue which is at the opposite extreme from the housewifely figment contained in the woman's magazine. She and V. I. (Vic) Warshawski are not themselves any less the products of fantasy—but the fantasy they come from is rather more robust to begin with. As private eyes, they pit themselves against corruption in society, and come out strongly upholding decency and order, as criminal investigations in fiction have always done. They stand to the fullest extent for freedom of action, being without personal encumbrances or restraints of any kind. They are conspicuously in control of their own lives—and they control the course of justice. Kinsey Millhone, in the current alphabetical investigation—eleven down, fifteen to go—is out to catch a killer of a high-grade hooker and performer in a pornographic film, whose death took place ten months before the novel opens. The dwindling trail takes Kinsey into the company of a lot of people of varying degrees of disagreeableness. At several points in the narrative, it nearly peters out altogether. However, Kinsey is nothing if not single-minded in her pursuit of each successive wrongdoer. K is a wry, accomplished and entertaining addition to the series.

The heroines of both the Grafton and Paretsky novels have claimed many freedoms for themselves—including the freedom to get their clothes in a shocking state, to be as obstinate and authoritative as the case requires, and to stand up to repeated rough handling. In Tunnel Vision, Vic wakes up in hospital with a bashed head, promptly staggers out of bed to get herself arrested as an illegal immigrant, and is no sooner out of that predicament than she's grubbing about in the Chicago sewers, beset by rats, on the trail of a homeless family, a mother and three children, one of them in the throes of an asthmatic attack. You can't complain about lack of incident in these adventures. …

Glenwood Irons (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “Gender and Genre: The Woman Detective and the Diffusion of Generic Voices,” in Feminism in Women's Detective Fiction, University of Toronto Press, 1995, pp. viii-xxii.

[In the following excerpt, Irons discusses the importance of community to Paretsky's detective protagonist V. I. Warshawski, and how Paretsky's portrayal of her has changed the detective genre.]

… Detectives in fiction have always seemed to be a response to what most generations feel is the uncontrollable murder and mayhem that surrounds them. Some have achieved international reputations: names like Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Sam Spade are still better known than those of the authors who created them. The woman detective has also enjoyed worldwide appeal; yet, with the exception of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple or Carolyn Keene's Nancy Drew, the names of female detectives have only recently gained wide recognition. Sharon McCone, Kinsey Millhone, and V. I. Warshawski are now well known. Their authors, Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, and Sara Paretsky, among many other writers, have created a virtual explosion of interest in detective fiction in which a woman is the protagonist. And if, as Jean Swanson and Dean James suggest in By a Woman's Hand, mysteries written by women are ‘reflective of the societies in which the authors themselves were raised', then it is clear that the fictional women detectives reflect a diversity of voices in response to the victimization of women as presented in the popular media.

Though women sleuths emerged as a separate and popular force along with their nineteenth-century male counterparts, the woman detective has seldom been perceived as having an individuality equivalent to that of the male detective. Miss Marple operates in the rigidly convention-bound, quasi-Victorian world of early twentieth-century England, and operates apart from the local police because her age and sex make her unsuitable for the job of discovering murderers. It is only recently, due in large part to the American public television series featuring her, that Miss Marple has begun to come out of the shadow cast by Poirot, Christie's ‘other’ detective—and the series itself emphasizes the Victorian quaintness of Jane Marple's village life far more than it focuses on her individuality. Conversely, popular male detectives like Holmes and Poirot, who also frequently operate outside the conventions of their societies, have been lionized for doing so. In fact, while they are seen to be meddlers early on in their series, they are eventually sought out by the police—a privilege rarely granted Miss Marple—because their individual quirks are respected by the largely male police forces in their fictions.

The male detectives, endlessly replayed in late-night movie versions by Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum, are obviously connected to the male heroes of Westerns like Shane, and they operate outside the civilized world around them because of a mythic necessity which encourages the male hero in that lonely direction. Frequent encounters with Spade-like loners in movies, Holmes-like intellectuals on public television, and Hammer-like dicks on commercial television could create the sense that the detective as urban hero is, almost by definition, male. The popular representation of this male detective-as-urban-cowboy who stands out against the rottenness of society has a powerful appeal. From the outside, he restores order in the midst of the murderous chaos to which we are exposed in the popular media—all the while enjoying the undying attention of the various women whose paths he crosses—and carries the work of the Western hero into twentieth-century urban centres, stopping only long enough to change his Stetson for a fedora and his Colt ’45 for a Smith and Wesson.

But, essentially since the late 1960s, it can no longer be argued that such an image is the only one informing the popular imagination with respect to the detective. Even those who ignore the plethora of women detectives in popular novels cannot help but recognize the change in TV and cinema depictions of this character. In the visual media, from the mystery-writing Jessica Fletcher of Murder She Wrote through the central character of Disney's V. I. Warshawski: The Movie to the gritty and powerfully realistic Jane Tennison of Prime Suspect, film audiences and television watchers have been witness to a wide range of women sleuths who are offering an alternative to the Holmeses, Spades, and Hammers. In fact, though Fletcher herself is loosely based on Agatha Christie's Miss Marple—Murder She Wrote being an obvious play on Christie's Murder She Said—it is clear that we no longer identify Agatha Christie's Jane Marple—the archetypal ‘spinster’ detective—as the only woman sleuth.

It will come as no surprise, then, that the publication brochure for a recently published critical dictionary entitled Great Women Mystery Writers: Classic to Contemporary, edited by Kathleen Gregory Klein, includes more than a hundred British and American women who have ‘created, molded and altered’ the detective fiction genre since the nineteenth century. The advent of such a volume illustrates that women have been writing and successfully marketing detective fiction since the inception of the genre. The general ignorance of the sheer volume of detective fiction written by women may have been caused by the omnipresence of Christie, which convinced many (including academic course creators) that the ‘spinster sleuth’ in the person of Miss Marple was the quintessential representation of female ratiocination. Or such an ignorance may simply have suited the purposes of those who prefer to overlook the contribution women have made to both popular and literary fiction. And as if to counter any claim that women detectives and their women creators were simply an aberration of the 1970s and 1980s, Swanson and James list more than two hundred women mystery writers whose books are now in print. …

Sara Paretsky, both a critical and a popular success, has perhaps the strongest voice among the new women mystery writers in the United States. Her eight novels to date exemplify some of the important shifts that occur in the hard-boiled formula when the protagonist is a woman detective. One of the shifts is manifest in the way Paretsky handles the well-known tough-guy archetype of Hammett and Chandler. Hammett and Chandler reworked the Western hero—a cynical loner whose code of behaviour frequently sets him outside the community, apart from both the outlaws and the authorities—into a tough-guy detective whose code of behaviour sets him outside the law. Like an individualistic cowboy, the classic detective hero rides off into the sunset, ends up in L. A. or Chicago, buys a fedora and a trench coat, and imports the anti-Christian, anti-family, and anti-feminine morality of the Old West into the big city. Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski, by contrast, often enjoys the help of (mostly female) friends, through a consensus she builds as the novels evolve. Like other new women detectives, she has virtually no female antecedents—certainly not Miss Marple, for example. And rather than importing old codes and old moralities, authors like Paretsky develop new ones, based only loosely on those of the tough guys of the 1930s and 1940s.

Klein's Great Women Mystery Writers notes: ‘Paretsky's strong interest in women's issues colors her life and her fiction. She serves as a long time member of the Chicago National Abortion Rights Action League (and has been its director since 1987). Moreover, Paretsky founded Sisters in Crime, a group dedicated to furthering “the careers of women in the mystery field and to correcting imbalances in the treatment of women.” The shifts which new women writers have effected in the detective genre are generally apparent in what Klein describes as the most important theme of Paretsky's novels—the evolving and different power relations between the sexes. This is clearly not a concern of the classic detective story, since the sexual role of the male protagonist in the diegesis, or narrative, is rarely questioned. Klein completes the biographical note on Paretsky by describing how, in all her stories, the rejection of the loner model is apparent; the author chooses what ‘Carol Gilligan calls an “ethic of responsibility” … common among women … where [the detective's] role is not simply to discover the murderer and restore order, but also to work with and develop a sense of community with and among many of the characters.’

Most critics of the genre have concluded that Warshawski is certainly not a loner and does not subscribe to the rigid loner codes which allow most male hard-boiled dicks their oft-violent, amoral étranger status. Though, like many of the male hard-boiled detectives, she has no immediate family members to whom she can turn—both her parents have died before the series begins—Warshawski is part of a community of (mostly) women, which she has worked hard to join. Her doctor is a close friend who often acts as mother, sister, and general confidante to the detective. Her closest neighbour is a retired blue-collar worker who frequently cooks her meals, does errands, and, occasionally, reprimands her. She frequently befriends and works with female relatives and friends. For example, in Indemnity Only, Warshawski takes in and works with a young girl whose father has been murdered early in the story.

Another way in which Paretsky's generic voice diffuses the male-oriented hard-boiled detective formula can be found in the confrontation between the detective and the criminal. While the traditional gangsters and other criminals meet the male detective on a more or less equal (gender) footing, Paretsky's criminals—frequently upstanding members of society who represent its worst abuses of power—meet a detective whose very presence challenges their male belief that Warshawski's is an unsuitable job for a woman. The advantage often goes to Warshawski, as most of these men underestimate her because she is a woman, a mistake for which they inevitably pay dearly. But Warshawski's professionalism is even challenged by friends. She is frequently admonished by a male police lieutenant who was close to her father and who believes that Warshawski should leave the criminals to the police; not only is her job unsuitable, but it puts at risk the lives of the men who are forced to intervene.

Even the violence in Paretsky's novels is different from that of the early tough-guy works. We suffer through attacks and recuperation, but, unlike those of the classic private eye, many of Warshawski's injuries are long term, and memories of them often carry over into the next novel. There is no sense that she is superhuman, nor is there a sense that we can forget the fact that all her attackers are men. One might even argue (as Modleski has about Harlequin Romances) that the violence in woman detective novels is a kind of inoculation against the intimidation, beatings, and related violence to which women are often subjected. That might explain why the violence in the novels has not proved troublesome for most readers. Moreover, as Janice Radway's Reading the Romance has recently illustrated, women readers of genre fiction are used to the intellectual superiority of women characters in the mass media. Perhaps the woman detective offers those same readers an opportunity to enjoy a woman protagonist who, though physically overcome by her male attackers at least once in the story, ends up physically and intellectually superior to them.

In just about every way, Paretsky and many of her American ‘sisters in crime’ have created women detectives who have forever altered the tough-guy formula. From Marcia Muller to Barbara Wilson, they have given us a viable alternative to the cynical loner of another age; the new woman detective speaks from the fiction to the real world we inhabit. She reaches out and illustrates to her readers the possibility implied in support given and received through a community. One might even say she detects ‘with a vengeance’ in order to focus on the ‘evolving and different power relations between the sexes.’ …

As if by extension of the crisis, Rebecca A. Pope convincingly argues for the presence of an ‘approach/withdraw orientation towards lesbianism’ in Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski novels. A great deal has been written about these novels, and the character and her author have been treated flatteringly by critics and readers alike. It seems that the brand of feminism which Paretsky has chosen for her protagonist is more than palatable to the mass audience. But while the main concern of Paretsky's books is the general breakdown of familial order—the books set family and community relationships against power structures like the church, the state, and the corporate world—there is an element of the V. I. Warshawski character which many readers may feel uncomfortable accepting. As Pope makes clear, female friendship in Paretsky's novels—specifically in the relationship between V. I. and her closest friend, Dr Lotty Herschel—is ‘explicitly opposed to patriarchal values.’ Such female friendship constitutes an essential difference between Warshawski and the earlier, male hard-boiled detectives. …

Margaret Kinsman (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “A Question of Visibility,” in Women Times Three: Writers, Detectives, Readers, edited by Kathleen Gregory Klein, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1995, pp. 15-27.

[In the following essay, Kinsman discusses the relationship between the female writer, protagonist, and reader, focusing on Paretsky's character V. I. Warshawski.]

Far away in London, where I have lived for more than twenty years—far away that is from Chicago, from a 1960s suburban Hinsdale adolescence, from my youth, from my American-ness—someone gave me a Sara Paretsky novel, with the off-hand view that I might like it, given my partiality for detective fiction and my American origins. What astonishes me now is that I can't remember which novel it was, who gave it to me, or indeed exactly when, six or seven years ago, it was. It seems as if I had never not read her, never not had access to this refreshing oasis. I fell upon Paretsky's Chicago-located detective novels as a reader not unlike Doris Lessing's exiled Martha, who “read[s] and search[es] with the craving thought, What does this say about my life?”

I recall the discovery of Paretsky, and her investigating protagonist, V. I. Warshawski, coinciding with the invitation to my twenty-fifth high school reunion in Chicago. The emotional landscape would have been ripe for a nostalgia trip—one of those journeys that unleash unresolved puzzles and mysteries in one's own life. But the embedded, informing question is, of course, what does V. I.'s life as an achieving, autonomous professional woman in Chicago say to me about my own life?

Most simply, V. I. and her creator make me visible to myself in a multitude of ways. As a reader I reflect and relocate myself in the protagonist, in the writer, in their created structures of meaning and in the city I used to know so well. The personal coherence of V. I.'s Chicago is of particular interest to me because of my remembered city; and because of the notion that real cities furnish material for literary myth as well as for memory. Chicago features prominently here, being both concrete and abstract, a famous place and an idea.

But more significantly, Paretsky's literary “maps” of Chicago and the life of an autonomous female appeal to me because of the way in which a single professional woman is authentically and accurately portrayed holding her own in the potentially corrupting milieu of city civic spaces. Obviously, it is high time more of the likes of us were “mapped” in books. As Maggie Humm points out in a recent essay on feminist detective fiction, “The question of who sees what is at the heart of detective fiction.”

V. I.'s city of choice, like mine, may well be experienced as a place of indifference, greed, corruption—a jungle, a pit, a monster lacking in anything so decent as an available and affordable parking space. Paradoxically, Chicago and London are also where V. I. and I are empowered to live capable professional and personal lives here at the end of the twentieth century. Making daily sense of my city where public space and social restrictions remain in question as far as women are concerned, I recognize many of V. I.'s strategies for dealing with her environment.

We bring our own meaning to words. How we do that is mysterious; and mysteries want deciphering. Virginia Woolf theorized that the mystery has to do with appetite; in an early essay on fiction, she wrote that her purpose was “to show the mind at work upon a shelf full of novels and to watch it as it chooses and rejects, making itself a dwelling-place in accordance with its own appetites.” What follows is something of a detective story, which has relied on self-interrogation as the principal method of inquiry into the question of what makes Paretsky and V. I. a “dwelling-place” for me.

Examining my current position as a woman reader of Paretsky propelled me briefly into the past to consider my own history of reader-response. Revisiting Jane Addams, I unearthed my dusty edition of her 1895 Hull House Maps and Papers and reflected on this early, if not first, effort in the direction of mapping sociological and demographic characteristics in urban neighborhood districts. Addams established the areas of major study for subsequent decades of Chicago sociologists; and she made an indelible impression on me as a young teen-age suburban reader. Long before I knew anything about sociology or demography, I “saw” and understood Chicago neighborhoods through her story, rooted in a community of women working and achieving together. From Addams the cartographer, I learned something about reading as a traveler. A few years earlier, Nancy Drew, the detecting heroine who always learned something about herself in the course of her investigation, had been providing me with a blueprint for the getting of personal wisdom. Aged eleven and twelve, I couldn't get enough of her. Jane Addams and Nancy Drew rolled into one—no wonder I responded to Paretsky and V. I. with an appetite.

The question of how texts become meaningful brought me eventually, inevitably, to literary theory and feminist scholars. Again, Virginia Woolf, pondering some fifty years ago on reader-response, wrote, “the reader has in common with the writer, though much more feebly: the desire to create.” Contemporary feminist literary theory and crime fiction genre theory are attentive to questions of reader response, reader pleasure, and the complexity of the reading experience. This critical attention to transactions between reader, writer, critic, and protagonist from such theorists as Maggie Humm, Jessica Mann, Carolyn Heilbrun, Dennis Porter, and others provides for me (as reader, researcher, and teacher) spaces with meaning, to borrow Catherine Stimpson's phrase. And the question of the personal pronoun in feminist academic writing further interests me. Nicole Ward Jouve's and Nancy K. Miller's recent works on the autobiographical voice in critical writing, the emergence of the personal in feminist criticism, along with Heilbrun's earlier work on writing women's lives, validate the more personal, flexible idiom to which I am drawn. The writer/scholar in me is recognizable as the women detectives I so enjoy reading. Like them, I collect information; puzzle about connections and links; explore pluralities of meaning; embrace irony, contradiction, discrepancy; tolerate uncertainty; and eventually figure it out. In this particular scenario, I feature as the chief investigator, conquering self-doubt in my search for order and the right word.

And finally, the feminist in me is recognizable in the significance of other feminist protagonists, both fictional and real, who have evolved out of generations of feminist politics framed by a profound conviction of the specificity of gender to the systematic social injustices that women suffer across divides of race, class, nationality, sexuality. This results in constant puzzles and problem-solving: of how to be, of what to say, of how to stand up for the self, of what is expected, of how to resist, of how to write a woman's life. Like Paretsky and V. I., I take, not so much for granted, but as the task, the recognition that we speak, read, and write from what Nelly Furman calls “a gender-marked place within our social and cultural context.”

At any rate, there I was, far away in London reading Paretsky: thirsty for Chicago and extremely curious about V. I.'s life, where geographic, cultural, and historic specificity are Vic's and her author's constructs, connected to and yet not mine. I found myself in driving need of a map, possessed of a desire to make Chicago visible again while pondering the links between these three constructs of V. I.'s and Paretsky's, and mine. Indirect and complex on one level, on another level the constructs can seem like simple references from one to the other. For instance, in the novel Toxic Shock, the Hinsdale that Paretsky constructs of words, was immediately triumphantly irrefutably my

Hinsdale … an old town about twenty miles west of the Loop whose tall oaks and gracious homes were gradually being accreted by urban sprawl … [is] not Chicago's trendiest address, but there's an aura of established self-assurance about the place. Hoping to fit into its genteel atmosphere, I put on a black dress with a full skirt and gold buttons.

While she does not specify V. I.'s destination by street, I am certain as the excited reader that I know exactly where V. I. parks in my town; and I am in no doubt of the significance of bringing my meaning to bear on Paretsky's words.

I want now to turn briefly to a discussion of a literary past in order to frame my subsequent comments on a Paretsky present. Beyond the crime fiction genre, themes of the city and the individual resonate throughout nineteenth- and twentieth-century literatures. The question of autonomy in city streets resonates in particular ways for women, who operate in a world of restraint, where it is the masculine privilege to travel unencumbered and to observe life. The ambiguous double-edged promise of danger and freedom when individual meets city more often frames the narrative of the male protagonist than the female person, as we can see in the Chicago canon.

Constructed primarily by a wave of writers converging in the city in the early 1890s, the Chicago Renaissance laid the groundwork for the received account of Chicago as a mechanical, inhuman, brutalizing environment. Chicago, according to James Hurt in his book Writing Illinois, “surely one of the most described, fictionalized, mythologized of cities,” is overwhelmingly familiar to us as Sherwood Anderson's “roaring city”; as Sandburg's “hog-butcher for the world”; as Upton Sinclair's “jungle”; as Lincoln Steffens's “first in violence, deepest in dirt; loud, lawless, unlovely.” A few decades later, it was Herzog's “clumsy, stinking, tender Chicago”; Algren's “writer's and fighter's town”; Bellow's “somber city”; Mailer's “honest town.” Sidney Bremer points to the way in which this male literary tradition “tended to objectify the city as a national concern” contrasting this with what she identifies as a lost counter-tradition of Chicago women writers (Edith Wyatt, Susan Glaspell and many others) dealing with more intimate visions of the city as a base of human action and of organic systems of community—families, neighborhoods, markets, workplaces.

What seems to be paramount in these less well-known narratives are the themes of possibility and conscience offered by the city's infinitely rich environment of cultural diversity, rather than the predominant literary vision of a Chicago “given over to male Oedipal conflict.” Paretsky says significantly of her own first summer in Chicago, 1966, “It was a time of great excitement and hope in the city, and I fell in love with the place—with the bigness and the sense of possibility.” “This was the first place that I'd really been on my own, and I think … getting so involved in the city made a permanent impression on me.”

Barbara Berg's study of the origins of American feminism, The Remembered Gate, focusing on the woman and the city in the nineteenth century, also draws attention to a female literary counter-tradition. She looks at how, as male and female spheres of activity and influence are increasingly separated in the nineteenth century shift from a largely agrarian existence to the industrial, urban milieu, the requirements of domestic order, especially as a bulwark, a sanctuary against the mean city streets, serve to fetter female energy and activity. Berg points to a nineteenth-century body of fiction by females that defied this orthodoxy, being full of “capable, imaginative and successful urban heroines … with confidence in their physical strength and capability … infused with vitality, ambition, and initiative.” This could, of course, describe V. I. Warshawski. Berg further makes a link between the “literarily expressed craving to find a fulfilled female self” and the subsequent nineteenth-century explosion of “female voluntary associations in cities across the nation.”

Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century provided an impressive example of effective networks of women using their energies outside the home, sharing experiences and collective action across divisions of age, class, and culture in the face of urban poverty, illiteracy, and exploitation. Women became visible and mobilized in an urban public sphere demonized in print as greedy, threatening, cut-throat. Their stories demonstrate, like Jane Addams's story of Hull House, a city beginning to accept the force of female energy. In the same vein, Liz Heron's recent anthology Streets of Desire

looks to the city as the site of women's most transgressive and subversive fictions throughout the century, as a place where … constraints can be cast off and new freedoms explored. … City fictions are often narratives of self-discovery … seem[ing] to insist on the autonomous status of female experience … [the place] where women come into their own.

Again, the link with Paretsky and her own experience of Chicago seems clear. In a 1988 interview, Paretsky said, “I think I was very fortunate that I was in my early twenties when the women's movement came alive in Chicago.”

Paretsky's portrayal of Chicago reveals her own experience and understanding of its geography, politics, people, and problems. Tillie Olsen in Silences identifies a “characteristic strain” in women's fiction as being a “concern with wrongs to human beings.” The crime fiction genre obviously lends itself to expressing concern with wrongdoing, and in Paretsky's hands links us to the Chicago literary legacy of women writers celebrating female characters of depth, ingenuity, intellect, energy. Kathleen Gregory Klein describes Paretsky's novels as “dense with the atmosphere of Chicago [and] a single woman's life amidst friends and family.” This junction, where city and a woman's life in it intersect, is the critical one for me, in both personal and literary terms. In reflecting on this notion of visibility—that is, how a city and the life of a contemporary woman are rendered literally and metaphorically visible in the Paretsky oeuvre, I was struck by the extent to which the writer draws on two recurrent motifs in the crime fiction genre (as well as in your and my life)—the car and the restaurant—as metaphors for V. I.'s independence, for the “knowability” of her community, for her mobility, and for her social participation in the city. Certainly my own vehicle and the public spaces of London restaurants that I know and frequent are both significant features of life as I live it; and both are linked to the meanings I see in the novels.

Before taking a closer look at cars and restaurants in V. I.'s Chicago, I want to speculate about maps and their significance in relation to visibility. Maps, like cities, imply the possibility of choices: losing the way, rather than gaining the way, is always possible. We gaze at maps, flat and representing objective direction, in order to be guided to a location. Topography, satisfactory for at least the two dimensions of latitude and longitude, scarcely accommodates the third, or any other, dimension. The map—an object known for its utility in getting us from one place to another—is the intermediary surface between the state of the wanderer and the traveler. Maps require continual updating.

Chicago has been as famously mapped by the urban sociologists as it has been written about. Carla Cappetti's highly original study of the relationships between the urban sociologists and the novelists of 1920s and 1930s Chicago includes a fascinating chapter on “Maps, Models and Metaphors.” She argues, “If maps are a main vehicle for imposing order on what appears to the outside as chaos, words are another of at least equal importance.” Maps make order visible. Detectives and researchers make order visible. Liz Heron expresses something similar to Cappetti when she writes that “the ease or difficulty with which the spaces of the city are negotiated plays out the symbolic drama of women's visibility or invisibility. In this plotting of mobility, women's cultural and social status is explored.” It is Heron's “plotting of mobility” I want next to explore in relation to V. I., who, in a perpetual motion of discovery, never seems to refer to the sort of map you pull out of the glove compartment.

V. I. steers by memory, instinct, dream, conviction, history—using these as if they were maps of those other dimensions, distances past and future, that are not found in the folds of the Rand-McNally. Paretsky reveals a great deal of V. I.'s value system through an extended urban iconography (much of which Vic comments on from the perspective of her car) making both the city and V. I.'s relationship to it visible.

One of the ways the car functions in the novels is to express V. I.'s powerful sense of direction. As she drives around the greater Chicago area, she provides a topography of the road and a clear indication that she knows exactly where she is going. Her quests around the city are successful on several levels. First, she gets to where she is going and returns, overcoming or circumventing obstacles en route. “I never get lost driving in Chicago,” she says in Bitter Medicine. “If I can't find the lake or the Sears Tower, the L tracks orient me, and if all else fails, the x-y street coordinates keep me on target.”

More symbolically, she usually finds or learns something in the course of her urban journeys that aids her search for truth, while helping the reader make sense both of the texture of her life and of the moral landscape she occupies in her mean city streets. V. I.'s fondness for the underdog, for example, is implied by her thoughts about the Cubs baseball team as she cruises past Wrigley Field or listens to the game on the car radio. She frequently muses on the Cubs who, in Indemnity Only, “had bad days, too—in fact more than I did probably.” Given a spare hour or two, her support for the basically no-hope team often takes her as an active spectator to the ballpark to cheer them on.

Other clues to her value-system are revealed in her resistance to received opinion on famous Chicago architectural triumphs. Moving around the commercial streets of the Chicago Loop in Bitter Medicine, Vic shows no respect for convention as she skeptically notes to herself:

My friends and I have financed one of the worst monstrosities known to woman on the northwest corner of the Loop. … Designed by Helmut Jahn, it is a skyscraper made of two concentric glass rings. … we get to pay heat and cool a place that is mostly open space. Still, it won an architectural award in 1986, which I guess proves how much the critics know.

V. I.'s consistent and concrete sense of direction as a driver and a traveler in her city helps me understand and accept the similar purposefulness she expresses and develops in relation to her own life. Greatly valuing the choices she makes about career, marital status, place of residence, friendships, V. I. has elected to remain a single woman, to remain in the city, and to engage in urban adventures. Rare bouts of bewilderment about the direction of her life are expressed primarily in her dreams, where she lets go of the logic and reason required in her daily professional world. The opening of Burn Marks offers the profoundly personal topography of a dream, representing part of the ongoing process of Vic's self-identification in confronting her past:

My mother and I were trapped in her bedroom, the tiny upstairs room of our … old house on Houston. Down below the dogs barked and snapped as they hunted us. Gabriella had fled the fascists of her native Italy but they tracked … her all the way to South Chicago. … I sat up. It was three in the morning. … I was sweaty and trembling from the dream's insistent realism.

Paretsky thus turns tradition upside down. Taking the familiar landscapes of Chicago, of a hard-boiled detective novel, and of a woman's life, the writer treats them as fluid/in flux, requiring us to “see” them differently. The precision of Paretsky's efforts to map V. I.'s city and her P. I. life on its streets is linked to the cartographer's task of visualizing and charting. This in turn is related to the considerable confusion the observer (whether mapmaker, writer, sociologist, or detective) is dealing with. The crime fiction genre is imbued with the same impulse to observe potential menace and threat, to order what is chaotic into a familiar pattern of cause and consequence, to tame the disorder. Above all to explain—to banish ambivalence and contradiction. P. D. James reminds us, in a 1986 Newsweek interview, “Detective stories help reassure us in the belief that the universe, underneath it all, is rational. They're small celebrations of order and reason in an increasingly disordered world.”

The detective, high celebrant of order and reason, is in charge of the ritual. When the detective herself poses the threat of disorder, as V. I. does to policeman Bobby Mallory's sense of what constitutes an appropriate life for a woman, and to various lovers whose sense of propriety leads them to try to protect Vic, then the narrative task of representing a return to order is complicated by the necessity to represent simultaneously the departure from order. Vic, the competent and capable protagonist dealing with her share of both the risk and the excitement the city offers to women, arouses incomprehension and disapproval from some and affirmation from others, her place in the text as a single, achieving, avowedly feminist P. I. already signifying visible disorder.

Now, the mythology of mean city streets and the detective who operates/eats alone both have a strong purchase in the crime fiction genre, particularly in the private-investigator tradition. “Mean city streets” brings to mind, as the phrase is meant to, configurations of murder, fear, betrayal, danger. It also brings to mind the individual, lone, and heroic fight for justice waged by the detective protagonist. Mean city streets provide the moral landscape against which the crusade takes place, and the reader sees them through the crusader's eyes. The complex representation of V. I.'s private-investigator life on Chicago's streets is elaborated to a significant extent, as I indicated earlier, by Paretsky's treatment of two urban P. I. images—the car and the restaurant.

The ordinary car and the ordinary event of eating alone in public operate as powerful symbols of V. I.'s refusal to countenance that there might be places where she cannot or “should not” go. While her car literally takes her to places where she is not supposed to be, snooping around factories, warehouses, loading docks, building sites, other people's office buildings, the car also signals figurative places she occupies. First, the car simultaneously establishes her individuality in a society obsessed with cars and setting great store by the latest model; and it locates her firmly in the P. I. tradition where the detective drives an oddball car—foreign, or bashed up, or distinctively sporty. Here, V. I.'s old Chevy and, subsequently, her beloved Trans Am distinguish her. Next, the car authenticates her as an achieving professional woman with the means to buy and maintain her own status symbol, reminding me of the change in some of the economic and social constraints historically characteristic of women's lives. The car has been a great leveler for women in the twentieth century; this literal mobility has accompanied—even generated—social and personal possibilities for females. V. I. belting up the expressway pushing 80 mph in her Chevy is no different at that point from Detective Rawlings speeding at the wheel of his Buick.

Third, the car stands as a symbol of Vic's energizing desire for the truth and for her autonomy, which she occasionally needs to distinguish from the more fleeting desire she might feel for the likes of the flashy '86 Nissan Maxima driven by the corrupt Dr. Burgoyne in Bitter Medicine: “If I'd gone into corporate law and kept my mouth shut when I was supposed to, I'd be driving a car like this. … You can't have everything in this life.” And finally, the car is a device (somewhat like the traditional sleuth's sidekick) for signaling V. I.'s keen observational powers and potency as a witness. While she drives, she conducts a running commentary of sorts on Chicago, at the same time bringing her observational skills to bear on a dialogue about the city and herself. The opening pages of Toxic Shock find V. I. meditating on a return to the South Chicago of her childhood:

I had forgotten the smell. Even with the South Works on strike and Wisconsin Steel padlocked and rusting away, a pungent mix of chemicals streamed in through the engine vents. I turned off the car heater, but the stench—you couldn't call it air—slid through minute cracks in the Chevy's windows, burning my eyes and sinuses.

In much the same way that V. I.'s legendary powers of navigation are both explicitly and implicitly signaled by the car motif, so does her encyclopedic knowledge of where to eat en route function as a signifier. V. I.'s ability to locate an eating establishment in almost any neighborhood, enter it with self-possession, and then benefit from the rewards of the subsequent nourishment (food, information, thinking time, rest, whatever) is, I suggest, like the car, an effective and particular means to the end of portraying her as simultaneously “outside” the convention and as having a persistent concern with the nature of locale and community. In Guardian Angel, fed up with dense traffic heading north on Halsted, V. I. gets off “at Jackson where the remnants of Chicago's Greek community lie … [and settles] down with taramasalata and a plate of grilled squid.” A woman eating alone in public might be marked as eccentric, deranged, or “failed.” But V. I.'s solitary public eating and drinking signals this as a normal, knowable activity—an acceptable alternative to the private space of hearth, kitchen, and family to which women are traditionally confined. Eating out demonstrates V. I.'s vast store of information about her city and her social mobility; she knows where to go. It also establishes her economic credentials. She eats fairly modestly and not regularly, but with deep appreciation of the values of hard work and good cooking. Eating out with Lotty at their favorite haunt, the Dortmunder Hotel, Vic reflects on both her food and her friend:

I hadn't eaten much of the cottage-cheese plate in the deli at lunch so I indulged myself with a veal chop and the special potatoes the Dortmunder makes, double-fried so they're crisp on the outside and soft and fluffy inside. Lotty ordered a seafood salad and coffee. But then, she's smaller than I am; she burns fewer calories. Or so I rationalized. (Bitter Medicine)

Often too hard up for the new pair of Nikes she could use, Vic, the daughter of working-class parents, is thrifty, but self-reliant, and able to nourish herself. Finally, the motif of eating alone in public establishes V. I. in an information and support network consisting largely of women—bartenders, waitresses, chefs, owners, upon whom Vic is sometimes reliant for sustenance and protection, as when Barbara and Helen of the Belmont Diner rather effectively foil one of V. I.'s pursuers with a jug of iced tea in Guardian Angel. While this sisterhood remains somewhat more anonymous to readers than the immediate community of Lotty and Co., it nevertheless contains other role models of independent achieving women such as the redoubtable Sal, owner of Vic's favorite Loop bar, The Golden Glow. Sal's business skills are given credit by V. I. in Bitter Medicine:

Sal was sitting behind the horseshoe mahogany bar when I came in, reading The Wall Street Journal. She takes her investments seriously, which is why she spends so much time in the bar when she could retire to the country. Sal tops my five eight by a good four inches and has a regal bearing to match. No one behaves in an unseemly fashion at the Golden Glow when Sal is there.

These snapshots of other women characters give the reader more evidence of the possibilities this city of Chicago holds (and by extension other contemporary cities) for female empowerment, autonomy, and sisterhood. V. I.'s vision of Chicago, explicitly and implicitly shared with most of her female friends and allies, is consistently informed by her abiding awareness of gender, race, and class; together, these women understand how such factors, historically and contemporaneously, shape and affect them in their city. Understanding the city as a racially and economically diverse and divided society, Vic inhabits and traverses a physical and moral landscape she is utterly familiar with and far from complacent about.

Detective novels traditionally emphasize the safety of such stable boundaries as geography, class, race, and gender. However, Paretsky's narratives disrupt the stability of this legacy by moving the boundaries, by transgressing divides, by opening up lines of communication (verbal equivalents of roads, ferries, bridges, railway tracks, rivers, canals) that did not exist before, as Vic drives and eats her way around Chicago. Her Chicago is a turbulent one—indeed the streets are full of pursuers, ambush, violence, cynicism—to which she is persistently alert. Lives can be lived and lost in the city and never missed at all. The stories of the aging and isolated Mitch and Mrs. Frizzell (both of whom die from a combination of human neglect and greed in Guardian Angel) spring to mind as prime Paretsky examples of society's dangerous and ominous tendency to treat whole sections of itself as disposable. But V. I.'s city is also a network of extended family and friends reaching from Max on the North Side through Lotty's less than fashionable Irving Park neighborhood to V. I.'s roots in South Chicago. Her ability to traverse all of these in a day, in a memory, in an observation, in a car, knits together a web of connection, support, mutual responsibility, information-sharing, collaborative action. Thus Paretsky echoes the counter-tradition of Chicago women's novels to which I referred earlier, sharing the resistance to impositions of gender, genre, and canon. The car and the restaurant carry meaning for V. I.'s participation in and independence of the community, as well as her resistance to the constraints of convention. Like the Chicago literary sisters before her, Paretsky's continuing stories of V. I. and her city demonstrate a profound understanding of the notions that in a world as divisive as our urban ones are, connection with a highly visible female community is something to cherish; and tales of conscience and a woman's concerns with wrongdoing are of value.

And now, a denouement of sorts. In a 1991 article in Ms. magazine, Carolyn Heilbrun, aka Amanda Cross, wrote: “Women are natural detectives, catching signs, intuiting connections, bravely confronting a recalcitrant and malevolent society and the men whom it serves.” This particular detective story of mine, related in the venerable tradition of the informal essay, has, as yet, an unresolved ending. Like any good mystery lover, and like many feminist “natural detectives,” I have a highly developed tolerance for ambiguity, for shifting boundaries, for irresolution. But that is as it should be at the moment. I have tried to explain only the significance of a certain train of thought in relation to some clues about recognition and pleasure, like trying to explain the complex imagery of a photograph—our view of what is in the photograph informed by the triangle of the negative, the print, and our own gaze. The desire for an ending—for mysteries do like a solution—is still somewhat baffled. I am left, and leave you, in the pleasurable state of suspense—of not knowing the outcome even in the process of approaching it. Who knows what V. I., Paretsky, and I and our appetites will be like in our fifties?

Rebecca A. Pope (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “‘Friends Is a Weak Word for It’: Female Friendship and the Spectre of Lesbianism in Sara Paretsky,” in Feminism in Women's Detective Fiction, edited by Glenwood Irons, University of Toronto Press, 1995, pp. 156-69.

[In the following essay, Pope analyzes the approach/withdraw orientation towards lesbianism that she asserts exists in Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski detective series, focusing on the relationship between Warshawski and her best friend Dr. Lotty Herschel.]

The opening chapter of Sara Paretsky's seventh V. I. Warshawski novel, Guardian Angel, is titled ‘Sex and the Single Girl.’ Here is the first paragraph: ‘Hot kisses covered my face, dragging me from deep sleep to the rim of consciousness. I groaned and slid deeper under the covers, hoping to sink back into the well of dreams. My companion wasn't in the humor for rest; she burrowed under the blankets and continued to lavish urgent affection on me.’ Experienced readers of Paretsky, those who know that the series is narrated by the detective herself, may stumble on the ‘she,’ conjuring as it does a picture of the heretofore heterosexual Vic in bed with another woman. Experienced readers of Paretsky who are lesbians—many of whom, if my own unscientific polling can be trusted, have never quite understood how Vic can fight the patriarchy all day and sleep with it at night—may applaud what appears to be Vic's change of erotic practice.

Some readers, then, may be relieved and others disappointed when Vic reveals that her bedmate, and the single girl whose sexual activity is under scrutiny in the chapter, is her dog, Peppy. I suppose, further, that whether or not one finds funny what appears to be a little joke depends on whether or not one's reaction to the novel's reassertion of Vic's heterosexual credentials is relief or disappointment. What I want to argue here is that this little joke, with its mild flirtation with the theme of lesbianism, is more than a joke, that the entire series of novels, like this passage, has an approach/withdraw orientation towards lesbianism. Much of the series’ exploration of (and anxiety over) the possible kinds of intimacies between women centres on Vic's relations with her closest friend Dr Lotty Herschel. A scene in Bitter Medicine, for example, calls up and defends against lesbianism when Lotty loses a special patient and, grief-stricken, turns up at Vic's apartment: ‘I took her with me to the living room, away from the unmade bed, to the big chair like the one Gabriella [Vic's deceased mother] used to hold me in when I was a child. Lotty sat with me a long while, her head pushing into the soft flesh of my breast, the ultimate comfort, spreading through giver and receiver both.’ As Vic turns herself and Lotty away from the unmade bed, conventional image of sexuality, so she turns to a model for the intimacy of their friendship and the pleasure of their physical contact which conventionally assumes/requires a turning away from sexuality, the mother-child relation.

I am not convinced that Vic's invocation of the mother-daughter bond accomplishes what she hopes it will—the complete separation of her relations with Lotty from the erotic—and will return to that question. But first I want to take a wider look at Paretsky's exploration of female friendship in the V. I. Warshawski series and place that enterprise in the tradition of literary representations of female friendship. As Janet Todd's study of female friendship in eighteenth-century fiction, Women's Friendship in Literature, and Tess Coslett's Woman to Woman: Female Friendship in Victorian Fiction show, the mother/daughter model for female friendship has a long history. Vic's repeated use of that model to capture the warmth, support, and nurturance of her relations with Lotty looks back to this tradition, but also departs from it, and from many contemporary theories of female development. In traditional literary and cultural discourses on the mother-daughter relation and the female friendships which replicate it, these bonds are vehicles for patriarchal interests. Mothers pass down traditional familial/patriarchal values to their daughters; close female friendships school women in intimacy and caring and help to usher them into heterosexual romantic relations. In Paretsky's novels, however, female friendship is explicitly opposed to patriarchal values and institutions.

An earlier generation of women detective novelists provides Paretsky with precedents for what one critic has called the novels’ emphasis on V. I.'s ‘special links with women.’ Rosalind Coward and Linda Semple observe that this earlier generation produced ‘a number of notable detective novels,’ Dorothy L. Sayers's Gaudy Night and Josephine Tey's Miss Pym Disposes for example, ‘concentrating on a closed community of women.’ The device of the closed female community, they argue, yielded sympathetic and deep portrayals of the relations between women which caught the richness and complexity of women's bonds in ways that few other novels of the period achieved. Isolated from the male world, although not free from the pressures of its power and values, female communities like women's colleges provide a site for the exploration of women's bonds outside the romance plot. Paretsky reinserts representations of rich, complex, and at times conflicted women's bonds into the wider, masculine world while keeping them separate from the heterosexual romance plot. In this, Vic and Lotty are prefigured by those famous (and oft-cited in critical writing on women's friendship in literature) friends, Chloe and Olivia, the women in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, who, surprisingly and unconventionally, like each other. Neither romantic rivals nor confidantes whose exchanges serve one or the other's progress towards marriage, they enjoy a relationship that escapes traditional plots, literary and otherwise, for women's lives and relations. Mary Carmichael's rejection of the conventional heterosexual romance for these women, Woolf argues, provides a new model and opens new ways of thinking and writing about women's relations to other women. Chloe and Olivia share a laboratory in London; they have in common not a man but a profession; they share the experience of making their independent ways in a male world.

Paretsky takes up these themes—deep and affectionate female bonds outside the confines of the romance plot, the experience of women professionals in traditionally male fields, and the dangers and opportunities that urban spaces present to women who leave (or are pushed out of) domestic spaces—and inserts them into an unlikely context, the hard-boiled detective novel. Much of the pleasure of reading Paretsky is watching how she reworks so conservative and masculine, even misogynist, a genre to address women's experience and aspirations, and we miss an important feature of this project if we neglect the relations between V. I. and Lotty. Vic's romantic objects change from novel to novel, but Lotty appears in every one, her most important connection. As a guilty Vic reminds herself in Guardian Angel after having stupidly put Lotty in danger: ‘I loved Lotty. More than any other person I could think of.’

Explaining to a man she is dating that her marriage failed because she was too independent, Vic observes: ‘I have some close women friends, because I don't feel they're trying to take over my turf. But with men it always seems, or often seems, as though I am having to fight to maintain who I am’ (Indemnity Only). It is hardly surprising, then, that while Vic's romantic involvements change from novel to novel, Lotty appears in every one, a constant in Vic's life and her most important attachment. ‘[Lotty's] the one person I never lie to,’ she says, ‘not my conscience—the person who helps me to see who I really am’ (Blood Shot). She helps Vic see past her frustrations with a case and ahead to constructive action (Deadlock); she pays her the compliment of respecting her professional judgment and the courtesy of ignoring her inadequate housekeeping (Killing Orders). When, in Burn Marks, Vic's attempts to help a wayward aunt endanger Vic's own life, Lotty gives her friend permission not to sacrifice herself on the altar of family duty. After days of dealing with male crooks, male clients who question her judgment, and male cops who never tire of telling her that detecting is not women's work, a few hours with Lotty are clarifying and restorative. They provide each other with psychological nourishment: the novels are filled with scenes in which Lotty and Vic have dinner together after a long day's work. Whereas in earlier fiction female friendship sometimes served as a refuge from the ‘strenuous demands of romantic love,’ in Paretsky's novels it functions as a counter to the oppressive assaults—here physical and psychological—of urban patriarchy.

This is not to say that Lotty is an ideal of uncritical and unlimited acceptance and support. She points out when Vic is being stubborn or taking too many risks, and dismisses her when she is self-pitying. ‘Lotty is sometimes about as pleasant as a can-opener, but she braces me. I know myself better when I talk to Lotty,’ Vic acknowledges (Killing Orders). While relations with men are turf battles that threaten, even deny, selfhood—with men she feels that she has to fight to maintain who she is—female friendship enhances her sense of herself, helps her know better who she is. All self-knowledge may indeed be relational, but Vic sees that what men would have her learn is that she is ‘other,’ that she is not a man and cannot share the same turf with them. The self-knowledge she obtains through her relations with Lotty, by contrast, is a kind of self-understanding. For example, Lotty knows Vic well enough to point out when she is behaving in uncharacteristic ways, and her observations encourage Vic to analyze her motivations and circumstances more fully (Deadlock). Although I'm not altogether comfortable with the rhetoric of ‘identity’ she employs, Elizabeth Abel makes an observation about Lily and Mrs Ramsay in Woolf's To the Lighthouse that applies as well to V. I. and Lotty: ‘Friendship becomes a vehicle for self definition for women, clarifying identity through relation to an other who embodies and reflects an essential aspect of the self.’

Similarities of gender, temperament, and professional experience highlight their commonalities and throw their differences into relief, thus enhancing self-understanding. Significantly, Vic and Lotty's friendship has its origin in a context which is political, professional, and gendered—they met while working for an abortion underground. Given this context, the novels constitute a study of the issues called up within friendships between independent professional women who see themselves and the world from a feminist perspective: the competing claims of affectional and professional responsibilities, for example, and the way the independence and autonomy necessary for women to function professionally affects their non-professional relations with other women and their need and capacity for nurturance.

The line between the professional and the personal is not as rigid for working women as for men in Paretsky's fiction. Vic's uncle Peter, for whom taking a job in Kansas City is also divorcing himself from troublesome and needy relatives, can maintain rigid boundaries, but Vic cannot. Deeply, often reluctantly, embedded within a network of friends and family, Vic is far from the socially isolated (male) private eye of traditional hard-boiled detective fiction. Only in the first of the novels does she pursue a case that has no connection with family, friends, or neighbours. Aunts in trouble, a cousin suspiciously dead, a childhood friend, and in Bitter Medicine Lotty herself get Vic started on the trail.

This blurring of boundaries between the personal and the professional reappears in the novels’ portrayal of Vic's relations with Lotty. They are friends, patient and physician, and in Bitter Medicine and ‘The Case of the Pietro Andromache,’ a short story in which Lotty is accused of murder and Vic tracks down the real killers, something like detective and client. A scene in Burn Marks suggests the tensions that result. Angry and anxious after treating Vic for yet another serious injury, Lotty asks: ‘Do you know how I feel every time I see your body come in on a stretcher not knowing if you're dead or alive? … Do you think you could manage your affairs so that you stopped a few feet short of the point of death, maybe even ask the police to take some of those risks?’ (emphasis added). Weary and defensive, Vic recognizes Lotty's fear of losing her but sees her request as a threat to her professionalism: ‘Sometimes I have to fight a hundred people just to be able to do my job. When you're the hundred and first I feel like all I want to do is lie down and die.’ Lotty's response doesn't so much resolve the conflict as suspend it: ‘So to help you I have to do things that are a torment to me? I'll have to think about that one Victoria. …’

The ellipses are in the text. Lotty drops the topic without arriving at a resolution or issuing an ultimatum. It will be taken up again, no doubt, the next time Vic is injured. Supporting V. I. in her work may mean being often worried and anxious. When the men Vic dates become similarly worried, they encourage her to turn everything over to the police, to not do her job at all. Lotty is upset and frustrated but asks only that Vic take more care on the job and fewer risks with her life. To ask more is to deny Vic the independence and autonomy she needs to do her job at all. The conflict is suspended because they know that as long as they both care for each other and respect each other as professionals, it can never be fully resolved. Competing claims can only be subject to regular and ongoing negotiation and compromise.

In the fourth novel of the series, Bitter Medicine, Peter Burgoyne complainingly, whiningly, asks Vic to show as much concern about his problems as she does about Lotty's. Vic replies: ‘I've known Lotty for close to twenty years. First she filled in for my mother, and then we became—friends is a weak word for it. Close any way. So when she has problems, they trouble me, too.’ V. I.'s sense of linguistic poverty is revelatory. What vocabulary and what models to use to talk about close relations between independent adult women? Like the other men Vic becomes involved with, Burgoyne is not fully comfortable with her profession, and Vic's response in such situations is to rebel against what she sees as an attempt to reinscribe her in the role of the traditional female who needs protection. This may be why she backs away from the mother/daughter model, with its suggestions of dependence, at this moment but is willing to embrace it, in one form or another, elsewhere. (In the latest novel, Guardian Angel, Lotty and Gabriella keep transmuting into each other in Vic's dreams.) But Vic may have ambivalent feelings about the model for other reasons, perhaps in part because it is so tempting: Vic lost her mother, Gabriella, at fifteen. Lotty is significantly older than Vic. Both Lotty and Gabriella are strong-willed and independent women who came to the United States to escape fascism. They both deeply love and support Vic. ‘Be careful: You have no mother, but you are a daughter of my spirit,’ Lotty says in the first novel (Indemnity Only), and, in the third, ‘You have been the daughter I never had, V. I. As well as one of the best friends a woman could ever desire’ (Killing Orders).

In the passage I quoted earlier from Bitter Medicine, Vic reverses their roles. The reversal, in which the younger Vic nurtures and comforts Lotty in a classic pose of mother/daughter love, can be read as an attempt to recoup the pleasure and nourishing love of this bond without calling up the dependence and blurring of ego boundaries that psychoanalysis has accustomed us to associate with it. From this vantage point, we see the attraction, perhaps the threat, but also the final inappropriateness of the model for friendship between mature professional women. But there is something else going on here as well. Coslett argues that the mother/daughter model for female friendship is so attractive because it ‘allows for physical closeness and emotional intensity.’ Indeed, it is perhaps the only model for ‘permissible’ loving physical contact between women still available in our culture. After sexology and psychoanalysis began to recognize, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, that close affectional bonds between women could be erotic ones as well, the possibilities for affectional bonds between women were reduced, and female friendships were increasingly represented as pernicious rather than wholesome and ideal. Thus, when Vic searches for another way of describing her loving bond with Lotty but can't find one—‘friends is a weak word for it. Close any way’—we see clearly that there isn't another word for it because only the mother-daughter relation recoups loving physical contact between women for patriarchy. When Vic reverses the mother/daughter roles and directs Lotty away from the unmade bed, she signals her frustration with the two traditional models—one celebrated, the other condemned—for close emotional and physical relations between women. Neither the lover nor the mother/daughter model is finally accurate and emotionally comfortable enough to figure her love for Lotty. ‘Friends’ is too weak a word for the relationship, both bracing and embracing, that they construct together. It doesn't capture the nurturance we have traditionally equated solely with the maternal or allow for the pleasure of physical contact between women so long taboo outside the mother-daughter bond. Nor does it suggest that aspect of their bond which is shared experience as feminist professional women in a city that is, as Paretsky represents it, run by men and full of dangers for women. What the friendship between V. I. and Lotty shows is not only that women can like each other very much, but that we need a new vocabulary and set of models to talk about it.

But that is not the entire story. As I observed earlier, when Vic describes herself steering Lotty away from the unmade bed and to the living-room chair, she calls up and moves away from the possibility of erotic relations between herself and Lotty. Significantly, Killing Orders, the novel that most features lesbianism—the victim, Agnes Paciorek, is a lesbian stockbroker with whom Vic did feminist political work when both were students at the University of Chicago—is also the novel in which V. I. and Lotty have one of their two most serious and lengthy estrangements. The other deep estrangement—indeed, the novel closes without a reconciliation—occurs in the novel I began with, Guardian Angel. That novel opens with a bedroom scene which suggests and then rejects the possibility of lesbian relations for Vic. It closes with a bedroom scene as well; while in bed with her lover, Conrad, Vic dreams that Gabriella and Lotty abandon her.

Early in Killing Orders, when Lotty behaves in an uncharacteristically suspicious and defensive manner, Vic wonders, ‘Could a friendship evaporate in the same mist as a marriage?’ Vic's comparison of her friendship to marriage suggests, at the very least, both its closeness and its importance in her life; her worry over the vulnerability of their hitherto solid bond, moreover, foreshadows greater difficulties between them. Lotty's Uncle Stefan dreams up a scheme to flush out the murderers, Vic goes along with it, and when Stefan is seriously, almost fatally, injured, Lotty blames an already guilt-ridden Vic. During much of the second half of the novel they rarely speak, except to trade accusations: Lotty accuses Vic of an egotistical single-mindedness that makes her too willing to sacrifice others in pursuit of her goals. Bolstered by Stefan's contention that Lotty herself is stubborn and hot-tempered, Vic accuses Lotty of unreasonableness and a tendency to martyrdom.

Meanwhile, Vic is not only tracking down Agnes's killer but constantly reasserting her own heterosexual credentials while battling with Agnes's homophobic mother, who wrongly blames V. I. for having ‘converted’ her daughter to lesbianism. Mrs Paciorek brings that accusation to the police lieutenant on the case, an old colleague of Vic's dead father, Lieutenant Bobby Mallory. He is perfectly happy to believe it—lesbianism provides a handy explanation for what Bobby sees as Vic's ‘unnatural’ desire to do the man's work of detection and to forego a woman's work of marriage and motherhood. This conjunction of Vic's estrangement from Lotty, the person she loves most in the world, and the appearance of the spectre of lesbianism in her own life is telling. Lesbianism, it appears, is too charged a subject for her to deal with while she is feeling her customary deep love and affection for Lotty. And it is a charged topic for Vic. Throughout the novel, she gallantly defends the right of Agnes and her lover, Phyllis, to live and love as they choose. But when she responds to charges that she might be a lesbian, her vocabulary is less measured, careful, and supportive. She hotly accuses Bobby of unfairly believing Mrs Paciorek's ‘shopping list of calumny’ against her and calls his accusations ‘really disgusting.’ Only after the mystery of Agnes's murder is solved—the man responsible is an eminently patriarchal and crooked archbishop—do V. I. and Lotty make peace. ‘I want your forgiveness,’ says Lotty, ‘I want to—not go back to where we were. We can't. I want to continue our friendship from here.’

As Vic seems, almost in spite of herself, defensive about the subject of lesbianism, so the novel, despite the important work it does to fight homophobia, employs defensive strategies within its representation of lesbianism to neutralize and diminish it. For example, Vic is uncertain about the reasons for Agnes's behaviour and can think of her friend's sexuality only in terms of political choice. ‘I don't know why Agnes chose lesbian relations. But she loved Phyllis Lording and Phyllis loved her,’ she tells Catherine Paciorek. She tells Lieutenant Mallory, ‘When our rap group followed the national trend and split between radical lesbians and, well, straights, she became a lesbian and I didn't.’ Casting lesbianism as a political act that threatens patriarchy underscores the lesson of the plot, which casts the lesbian murder victim as a victim of patriarchy because her erotic practice is, from the perspective of male interests, criminal. But Vic's reluctance to figure lesbianism in terms of desire as well as political choice elides complications and has the effect of narrowing women's desire for other women into something that must be seen in terms of patriarchy. Vic's construction sets up lesbianism as a reaction against patriarchy rather than as a practice that privileges women and female desire. In other words, by figuring lesbianism solely in terms of the politics of gender relations, the novel's representation of it does just what its representations of female friendship don't do. We value the way Paretsky represents Vic's special relations with women because they explore women's bonds without reference to men. But while, as I have shown, female friendship in the novels is not structured and mediated by relations to men, lesbianism is.

A similar defend—get defensive logic is at work in the characterizations of Agnes and her lover, Phyllis. Agnes and Phyllis are sane, mature, and untroubled by their lesbianism. How good it is to see lesbians represented in a way that doesn't reinscribe phobic stereotypes of them as sick, suicidal, masculinized, and man-hating. The representation of Agnes and Phyllis as a couple, however, depends on oppositions, and the binary structure is, of course, the foundation of heterosexuality. Phyllis, for example, is a retiring scholar, and Agnes is an aggressive stockbroker. Indeed, when Vic concludes that the police are working on the assumption that Agnes was ‘sweet and impressionable,’ she warns them not to view Agnes in such stereotypically feminine terms: ‘Keep in mind that sweet impressionable people don't build up the kind of brokerage business that Agnes did.’ These complementary differences in temperament and profession, as well as those in age (Phyllis is significantly older), reinscribe binary difference within the threatening same that is lesbianism. Such representational strategies tend to imply that lesbian relations are structured like heterosexual ones, and they privilege and reassert heterosexuality as the standard, the norm, against which all other relations are to be understood and judged. In other words, to reinscribe complementary difference within the lesbian couple is to figure lesbianism not as fundamentally different from heterosexuality but rather as a variation, as it were, on it.

I am not arguing here that Vic is, despite her uniformly heterosexual practice, a ‘latent lesbian’ (if there can be such a thing). I do feel secure in claiming, however, that the novels leave open the possibility that Vic's desire is more various and fluid than her practice. And I am not just thinking here of Vic's deep love for Lotty and the pleasure Vic finds in physical contact with her. As Richard E. Goodkin has correctly argued, Agnes and V. I. are double figures whose beliefs and behaviour undermine the familial/patriarchal order. Given that Killing Orders casts desire for another woman as one form of resistance to patriarchy, it is difficult to see why the logic of their doubleness should not extend to the issue of V. I.'s desire. Indeed, Vic's most explicit statement about her own orientation and practice—‘while I love many women dearly, I've never had women lovers’—is nicely ambiguous and open to a variety of readings.

But while the novels intuit that Vic's desire might extend beyond the narrow confines of the heterosexual, they show as well how hard, and on how many levels, patriarchal culture works to diminish this threat to its primacy and interests. Agnes dies not merely because what she knows threatens the success of the archbishop's financial schemes, but because, as her patriarchal mother complains, what she does threatens patriarchy on other levels as well: ‘It was enough for Agnes to know I believed in something for her to believe the opposite. Abortion. The war in Viet Nam. Worst of all, the Church. I thought I had seen my family name degraded in every possible way. I didn't realize how much I could have forgiven until she announced in public that she was homosexual.’ Heterosexuality, the passage makes clear, is a patriarchal institution. Thus, lesbianism gets the death penalty in Killing Orders, and a death threat is a powerful incentive to repress desire and conform. In other words, the novel shows why the possibility of a lesbian erotic practice doesn't even come up for most women—including, perhaps, Vic—regardless of their desire.

Phyllis Lording, Agnes's lover, is the author of a scholarly book called Sappho Underground. The title invites us to see it as a mise-en-abyme and to ask whether there is a Sapphic subtext in Paretsky's fiction. Judith Roof provides support for this move: ‘But just as humans rarely exhibit purely heterosexual or homosexual desires, so narratives might inscribe conflicting and inconstant desires. The mixture of heterosexual and lesbian desire in many novels by women may account in part for the kind of undecidable tension in women's writing that prevents it from easily adhering to oedipal expectations [the drive towards closure, completeness, mastery, and the unification of opposites].’ Although Roof does not discuss Paretsky in her study, her analysis gives us a way of capturing the tensions I have been trying to isolate here. Significantly for our purposes, Roof's reading of the lesbian subtexts of so many women's fictions and so much feminist theory is grounded in an alternative reading of the mother-daughter relation which refuses to diminish or evade—as, Roof argues, so many theorists who plot out a heterosexual trajectory for female development do—the erotic implications of the fact that an infant daughter's primary, original, love object is her mother.

Through a complicated argument too long and sophisticated to summarize here, Roof shows how even in theories like Nancy Chodorow's and Julia Kristeva's, which assume/set a heterosexual trajectory for the infant girl's development, ‘the memory of the mother stands in the place of desire.’ Turning from theory to fiction, Roof finds lesbian narratives filled with absent mothers and ‘already differentiated and very independent protagonist daughter[s for whom] the lack represented by the absent mother is displaced into the lack constituting desire itself.’ The ‘lesbian omission of the mother removes the threat of mother/daughter incest’ and the possibility of pre-Oedipal fusion, Roof argues, and ‘perceives woman-to-woman relations as relations between two individuals.’

This is certainly the case in Killing Orders. Agnes and Phyllis are not, as is traditional in heterocentrist theories and representations, bad cases of arrested development but mature, differentiated, and independent women. But these adjectives apply equally to Vic, and it is Vic whose mother, every novel in the series repeats, is absent and mourned. Heterocentrist narratives and theories cast relations with the mother in nostalgic terms and focus on a lost primal plenitude; lesbian narratives, Roof claims, ‘privilege the moment of separation from the mother [in other words, the moment of individuation] rather than the time of [pre—Oedipal] unity with her.’ And it is surely the moment of loss and separation from Gabriella that the novels privilege again and again. At the close of Killing Orders, just after she is reconciled with Lotty, Vic recounts a dream and the story of her name, Victoria Iphigenia: ‘“Do you know what my middle name is, Lotty?” I burst out. “Do you know the myth of Iphigenia? How Agamemnon sacrificed her to get a fair wind to sail for Troy? Since that terrible day at the priory [when her angry aunt Rosa tells Vic that she threw the young Gabriella out on the streets because her husband had fallen in love with her], I can't stop dreaming about it. Only in my dreams it's Gabriella. She keeps laying me on the pyre and setting the torch to it and weeping for me. Oh, Lotty! Why didn't she tell me? Why did she make me give her that terrible promise [to help Rosa if she is ever in trouble]?”’ While the dream narrative dramatizes Vic's death and figures it, like Agnes's death, as a sacrifice to the patriarchal order, the dream also marks the death of some of Vic's beliefs about Gabriella and enacts Vic's separation not just from her but from the patriarchal family order to which Gabriella is here tied and to which she appears to abandon Vic. Lotty holds Vic and encourages her to grieve, but despite all the mother/daughter modeling in the novels, does not offer herself as a substitute Gabriella: ‘Yes, my darling, yes, cry, yes, that's right. They named you well, Victoria Iphigenia. For don't you know that in Greek legend Iphigenia was also Artemis the huntress?’

The close of Guardian Angel, the latest novel, brings together, once again, Lotty, Gabriella, and dreams of loss and separation. Asleep with Conrad Rawlings and still estranged from Lotty, Vic wakes from yet another of a series of nightmares about her mother's death, ‘dreams in which Lotty and Gabriella were inextricably entangled.’ Vic reads the dream as a symptom of her fear of being abandoned, especially by Lotty, as she had been by her mother. This is certainly true, but Vic's reading doesn't go far enough. The explicitly erotic and heterosexual scenario dissolves and uncovers the mother-daughter relation that heterosexual relations have displaced. A memory of the lost mother underpins heterosexual desire, is posited as the origin of desire. And given the eroticized scene, the mother-daughter bond and the female-female relations it makes possible are eroticized as well. Beneath the heterosexual surface is a subtext that isolates women's desire for women as the origin of desire. Faithful to the law of the repressed, what the opening of the novel jokingly banishes, the possibility of erotic relations between women, returns in displaced form at the end. But perhaps Paretsky knows this, and perhaps it is this knowledge that allows Vic in Guardian Angel to respond to the accusation that she is a lesbian in an entirely different fashion than she did in Killing Orders. Only a few pages before a close that brings male lover, mother, and female friend together at the scene of desire, Vic is accused of being a ‘dyke.’ Her response to what she calls ‘such a feeble insult’ is to laugh. But then again, laughter is often, and might be here, a defence.

Ann Wilson (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “The Female Dick and the Crisis of Heterosexuality,” in Feminism in Women's Detective Fiction, edited by Glenwood Irons, University of Toronto Press, 1995, pp. 148-55.

[In the following excerpt, Wilson discusses the protagonists of novelists Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, and Sara Paretsky, concluding that “Female hard-boiled fiction offers a mild challenge to the dominant social order but not a radical assault on it.”]

In recent years, critics have hailed the work of three American writers—Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, and Sara Paretsky—as revising, perhaps even renewing, the tradition of the hard-boiled detective novel. Each of the writers has created a detective who is a single woman in her mid-thirties, and who works as a licensed private investigator. Physically and mentally tough, willing to take tremendous personal risks as she negotiates the treacherous underworld of urban America, each of these detectives recalls the tradition of Sam Spade more than that of Miss Marple. For these authors, the problem is one of having the heroine occupy a male subject position—the role of hard-boiled detective—without making her seem as if she is a man in drag. The negotiations of gender and sexuality in Grafton, Muller, and Paretsky are deft attempts to remain faithful to the tradition of tough-guy detective fiction while disrupting its gender codes. The three novelists retain for these heterosexual women detectives the traditional self-sufficient individualism of the private investigator even though they are writing within a genre which has always defined women in relation to male loners.

The hard-boiled detective is a familiar figure in the novels best exemplified by those of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and in the cinematic adaptations of those works. Worldly-wise, and cynical because he has stared corruption dead in the face, the hard-boiled detective has nevertheless adopted only a veneer of inaccessibility. Despite appearing to be immune to the contagion of the world, he is vulnerable underneath and capable of falling in love with a pretty girl—who often turns out to be treacherous, a femme fatale, an agent of evil. The attractive woman is duplicitous, her physical beauty working a deadly web in concert with her depraved spirit. This scheme of gender relations gives hard-boiled fiction a decidedly male, even misogynistic, quality.

Another feature contributing to the genre's tough-guy masculinity is the gritty, unrefined language, evoking a ‘realistic’ sense of place, even when that place is ugly. Critics have suggested that the willingness to describe reality as the hard-boiled gumshoe sees it, neither flinching when faced with corruption nor softening his description to spare the sensibility of the audience, points to Ernest Hemingway's influence. That hard-boiled detective fiction seems to be a hyper-masculine form gives rise to the question, Why are so many women writers and readers interested in this kind of novel?

The primary appeal is readily evident: a heroine modeled on a hard-boiled detective is a woman who is self-reliant and independent, a prototype of a feminist ideal. Each of the three authors under discussion has created a detective who is university educated, her trained intellect finding a corollary in a trained body maintained through rigorous physical exercise. In top shape both mentally and physically, Kinsey Millhone, Sharon McCone, and V. I. Warshawski are capable of meeting the challenges of the world—or perhaps more accurately, the threats of the underworld. The conventional representation of the female body as weaker than a man's and therefore less effective in situations which require physical power is exposed by Grafton, Muller, and Paretsky as a ruse: each author puts her heroine in situations which require agility of mind and body. For example, in Paretsky's Burn Marks, Warshawski is abducted by the villain and taken by him to a construction site, where they meet three of his accomplices, who are holding Warshawski's elderly, alcoholic aunt. The captors take their two hostages to the top of an unfinished building. Although Warshawski's hands are bound, she cleverly devises a way to retrieve her gun from the waistband of her jeans. She shoots one of her abductors in the shoulder blade, and when another is about to shove her aunt over the ledge of the building to her death, she kills him.

The incident is typical of these novels inasmuch as the heroines never initiate the violence, and respond violently only when it is clear that inaction on their part would result in death either for themselves or for someone who is defenseless. Their violent actions, cast as the only possible actions if the lives of the innocent are to be preserved, seem to involve an almost maternal instinct to protect those incapable of protecting themselves. The novels affirm that when faced with threatening situations, women are fully capable of taking care not only of themselves but of others. This is probably a good thing given that, like the tough guys of the 1930s, Grafton's, Muller's, and Paretsky's detectives all have problematic relationships with the local police forces and cannot necessarily count on them for protection.

The antagonistic relationship between the woman PI and the local police force reflects the difficulties women face in dealing with institutions dominated by men. The tough-gal investigators are like many women in Western culture, who lack access to the power and prerogatives of masculinity. Moreover, if the police could effectively control criminal activity—particularly against women—the female private investigator would have a much less prominent role to play in the mystery genre.

In the work of the three novelists, the problematic relationship between the woman PI and the police extends into her private life: each of the three detectives has had a love affair with a policeman. Grafton's Kinsey Millhone, who in ‘E’ Is for Evidence is thirty-two and describes herself as ‘twice divorced, no kids, and no close family ties,’ is having an affair with Jonah Robb of Missing Persons, Santa Teresa Police Department. Millhone recalls the beginning of the affair:

He's thirty-nine, blunt, nurturing, funny, confused, a tormented man with blue eyes, black hair, and a wife named Camilla who stalks out intermittently with his two little girls, whose names I repress. I had ignored the chemistry between us for as long as I could … And then one rainy night, I'd run into him on my way home … Jonah and I started drinking margaritas in a bar near the beach. We danced to old Johnny Mathis tunes, talked, danced again, and ordered more drinks. Somewhere around ‘The Twelfth of Never,’ I lost track of my resolve and took him home with me. I never could resist the lyrics on that one.

This love affair is initiated because the normally rational Millhone surrenders logic for the lure of romance. But taking leave of her senses renders her emotionally vulnerable, as with many of her male counterparts in the novels of the genre written in earlier decades. When Millhone needs information to which the police have access, she calls her lover at work only to find that, without telling her, he has taken his family away on a Christmas skiing holiday. In a twist on the figure of the duplicitous woman who betrays the male detective, Millhone the woman detective is betrayed by a man, but with the further ironic complication that he returns to his wife and children, thereby implicitly affirming the value of the stable family, which Millhone, as the other woman, threatened to disrupt. The woman detective in this case becomes the femme fatale.

Like Grafton's Millhone, Muller's Sharon McCone has an affair with a police detective, Greg Marcus of the San Francisco Police, Homicide Division. Even when she has extricated herself from this relationship, McCone maintains professional respect for Marcus. Nevertheless, a tension remains. In There's Nothing to Be Afraid Of, McCone investigates the harassment of Vietnamese refugees living in a tenement hotel. During the course of her investigation, she calls Marcus to discuss a murder. After a second murder, Marcus asks to interrogate McCone, but she resists. He insists that she ‘go into it now,’ causing her to bridle ‘at the order.’ This response is symptomatic of the clash of wills which characterized her affair with him. That relationship now over, she rationalizes that the feeling of irritation ‘belonged to another time, when I had a right to take offense.’ The tension in her relationship with Marcus was initially a consequence of his demeaning her. Aside from his relentlessly insinuating that she was ineffective at her job, he insisted on calling her ‘Papoose,’ a nickname which patronizingly referred to her Native heritage and doubly insulted her, on the basis of both her race and her gender. The use of the name marks a structure of power within the relationship which positions Marcus, the figure of the law, as a dominating father rather than a sympathetic lover.

McCone's tempestuous relationship with Marcus has been replaced by an easier one with her current boyfriend, Don del Boccio, a disc jockey for a rock and roll station who, in contrast to the forceful, occasionally abrasive Marcus, is sensitive, ‘a quiet man, a classical pianist.’ Nevertheless, despite her more equitable and indeed happier relationship with del Boccio, McCone discovers that her attraction to Marcus is still strong. She invites him in for wine after he drives her home. As he prepares to leave, she feels the urge to invite him to stay but musters the strength to resist the impulse. She tidies up and readies herself for bed, only to discover that, unbeknown to her, del Boccio has been lying in her bed waiting. Without rancour, he comments, ‘For a while there, I thought the three of us were going to end up in bed together.’

McCone and Millhone have relationships with the police which complicate both their personal and their professional lives. Not only is Millhone involved in a problematic relationship with Robb, but she is herself an ex-cop who left the force because the role given a woman officer did not allow her the autonomy she enjoys as a self-employed private detective. In ‘E’ Is for Evidence, she allegedly has falsified an arson report to make it look legitimate, and her arrest on charges of fraud seems imminent. In There's Nothing to Be Afraid Of, McCone is warned off the case by Marcus, who claims that her investigation ‘may not be to the Department's advantage.’ McCone and Millhone are attracted to police officers, because the men's positions as enforcers of the law make them seem particularly masculine; at the same time, the heroines are repulsed, because the power and authority over others which these men enjoy makes them unable to respect women as professional and personal equals.

The inequity between the police and the private detective, between men and women, is at the core of Sara Paretsky's novels featuring V. I. Warshawski. Like the other women detectives, Warshawski is single and, as the only child of parents who are now dead, has no close family ties. Her father, a beloved detective on the Chicago police force, had a protégé named Bobby Mallory, who is now a senior detective. Mallory fulfils his filial obligations to his dead mentor by assuming the role of surrogate father to Warshawski, advising her on her love life and attempting to protect her from the perils of her job, perils he views as unsuitable for a woman. His disapproval is marked by his belittling of Warshawksi's professionalism. He insists that by ‘playing police’ she resists the grown-up responsibility of a woman—selfless devotion of herself to marriage and motherhood: ‘Maybe true love will get her mind off wanting to be a boy and play boys’ games with baseballs and guns.’ Mallory himself now has a protege on the police force and believes that this man would be the ideal mate for Warshawski. The two dated, but by the beginning of Burn Marks Warshawski has ended the relationship because ‘Michael hangs out with a crowd where the wife is the little woman who stays home and has kiddies … It's not my style, never has been and never will be.’ ‘Michael,’ as it turns out, is Michael Furey, the villain of Burn Marks, who as the action unfolds turns out to be a corrupt cop. As his name suggests, he is consumed by rage, which he turns on Warshawski when she realizes that he is involved in a complicated scheme of fraud. When Furey abducts Warshawski and takes her to the construction site where he intends to finish her off, he says: ‘I'm not taking any chances with you … You're not interested in the things a normal girl is—you just play the odds and wait your chance to sit on a guy's balls.’

In the novels of Grafton and Muller, the female private investigator poses a threat to male police officers—their heterosexual manhood is threatened by the mere existence of the female dick. The responses to that threat are explored in Burn Marks when Furey responds to Warshawski with a violence fueled by misogynistic logic that his masculinity is threatened by Warshawski's refusal to conform to his ideal of woman. The inability of these police officers to accept women as professionally equal and to resist asking them to conform to a male-generated image of woman is not simply a matter of benign misunderstanding; women detectives constitute a profound threat to the officers’ masculinity, which realizes its full potential in physical violence—one of the few areas in which the male character has the potential to better the woman detective. It is not difficult to understand why there is little possibility of a satisfying romantic relationship with a man. …

The doomed romantic relationship is, of course, part of the tradition of detective novels, not just hard-boiled fiction, because detective fiction tends to celebrate the individual: one person uncovers the truth. However, the female dick's transgression of gender codes is represented as her personal refusal of these codes; her selection of a lover is similarly a matter of her personal choice. The convention of the hard-boiled novel precludes seeing the female detective as breaking through socially produced codes, so that even as she becomes something of a role model—the independent, self-reliant woman—she remains an anomaly—an individual and something of an outsider, both conventional characteristics of the detective in hard-boiled fiction. The failure of her romantic relationships seems to be a matter of personal incompatibility rather than a symptom of larger social issues of gender and sexuality. Her inability to find a lover with whom she can sustain a relationship is a consequence of her personal psychology and not of the constraints imposed on both men and women by socially produced gender roles. Whatever impulse these novelists have to disrupt social codes, the constraints of form prevent a radical analysis of gender and sexuality. Female hard-boiled fiction offers a mild challenge to the dominant social order but not a radical assault on it.

Natasha Cooper (review date 20 October 1995)

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SOURCE: “Going for the Heart,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 20, 1995, p. 24.

[In the following excerpt, Cooper complains that Paretsky allows ideas to take presidence over all else in the short stories of V. I. for Short.]

There are several traps in the path of crime writers who develop a detective through a series of novels. The most obvious is the formula that becomes boring for both writer and reader. A less simple but perhaps more dangerous snare awaits novelists who avoid the first by dealing ever more seriously with the evil about which they are writing. …

In V. I. for Short, Sara Paretsky has produced a collection of stories written between 1983 and 1992. Necessarily slight, but attractive, they have backgrounds ranging from a regular weekly Go party held by some Japanese neighbours of the Chicago private eye, V. I. Warshawski, to an expensive beauty parlour; from the practice courts on which a young tennis star is bullied by her obsessive father to the art-filled apartment of an ambitious doctor.

Most of the familiar characters appear in these stories and provide a nice reminder of the best of the full-length novels. There is the pugnacious, lonely, sexy V. I. herself, Doctor Lotty Herschel and Max Loewenthal, Murray Ryerson, the journalist, Gabriella, V. I.'s beautiful, dead mother, and Sal Barthele, the owner of the Golden Glow bar. The wonderful, exasperating Mr Contreras has no more than a walk-on part.

In “Settled Score” (1991), Paretsky has fallen into the trap of excessive earnestness. She explains in a short foreword that she wrote the story when “wrestling with the issue of personal responsibility”, and she has allowed it to distract her from what she usually does so well. The story itself is a simple piece about a murder, several suspects and a false accusation, but it is less convincing than usual, and some of the dialogue is wholly unnatural. When the victim's lover comes to V. I.'s flat to announce his death, V. I. greets the news, not with sympathy or even questions, but with “But—he's not that old. And I thought he was very healthy.”

Crime fiction without ideas and moral dilemmas can become unsatisfying or distasteful (or both), but if the needs of fiction take second place to the ideas, the writer risks losing the very energy that makes a novel work.