Women and Detective Fiction: Update

I’ve been industriously rounding up samples of the various writers on my list of possibilities for the Women and Detective Fiction seminar (see here for the current reading list and parameters for my current search). What strikes me most at this point is that there’s a difference between a book you might want to read and a book you’d want to teach. There just has to be enough to talk about if you’re going to teach something. In a class focusing on genre fiction, innovation is one potentially important factor; hence my interest in Grafton and Paretsky, for instance, who took the well-established conventions of hard-boiled private eye fiction and did something different with them. But exemplarity also matters; we will read Agatha Christie, for instance, because she establishes and perfects so many conventions of a certain kind of ‘puzzle fiction’ or ‘cozy,’ and because Miss Marple is a crucial prototype for many women detectives who follow. Complexity of form or theme gives us more to think and talk about; for this particular course, novels that explicitly explore the relationship of women to crime and detection, or to power and justice more broadly, or that raise questions about the effect of gender on (mystery) writing can provoke particularly good conversations. Good writing matters, though it’s not an easy thing to define, and what we might typically think of as literary qualities are not always appropriate to genre fiction–or their absence may be outweighed by the other factors I’ve mentioned. This is all by way of saying, yes, there are dozens, even hundreds (maybe thousands!) of mystery novels that might fit the broad course description, but it’s difficult to find a half-dozen or so that can support the weight of our attention in the classroom. (I realize that this result reflects as much on the peculiarities of teaching literature as it does on the particularities of detective fiction; many historical accounts of English studies as a discipline have pointed out that, for instance, “close reading” as a critical practice arises coincidentally with modernist texts that need pretty painstaking analysis to yield their meaning. But that’s a subject for another post.)

To get on with it, since my previous post I’ve managed to get my hands on samples by a number of the authors we came up with as likely suspects. Here are the ones I’ve looked at so far. I don’t pretend to have read them all through; by a few chapters in, I could usually tell (or I thought I could, anyway) where things were going. If you think I missed a bet and should go take another look at one, just let me know: I’ve got them all for another couple of weeks.

Karin Alvtegen, Betrayal and Shame. These both look kind of interesting, but they just didn’t seem to be the right kind of novels–they aren’t detective novels. for instance, but are closer, I think, to thrillers.

Karin Fossum, Broken. Basically, ditto. This one looked literarily quite interesting, though, and others on her backlist look like they might suit better. I’ll keep looking.

Laurie R. King, A Grave Matter, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and The Art of Detection. I thought A Grave Talent was pretty good but not, ultimately, that interesting (in that teaching kind of way). If I could find another in the Kate Martinelli series that had a more thematically relevant case at its center, that might be a reasonable option to displace ‘A’ is for Alibi, as the series combines two of my desiderata (police procedural, lesbian). The Beekeeper’s Apprentice was more entertaining than I expected (I often find historical mysteries unbearably tedious), at least for the first half, but I got a bit tired of Holmes (as usual) and having a female version of him didn’t really help after all. I would have liked it better if he had to face off against somebody who rejected his methods (and, for that matter, his annoyingly superior personality). The Art of Detection, which brings the two series together, lost me too.

Sandra Scoppetone, Everything You Have Is Mine. I read about half of this one and it seemed fine, very much in the Grafton / Paretsky / Muller line of female private eye novels. That’s the thing, though: it didn’t break out of that form and do something really different. Paretsky has said that when she began her V. I. Warshawski novels she meant to do a simple role reversal, with a woman in the private eye’s place–but she found that changing the sex of the detective affected too many other aspects of the story and she had to develop a more complicated model. Scoppetone seems to have found it quite easy to fit her lesbian investigator into an existing model; nothing in the novel (as far as I read) suggested that she was going to shape her book around a related inquiry into other challenges to or critiques of heteronormativity, for instance. That she doesn’t have to (or want to) do something more overtly political is fine, even good. But then if it’s just a book like ones we’re already reading but happens to have a gay detective, what would we talk about? We could talk about how times have changed…but then we are doing armchair sociology, not literary analysis.

Denise Mina, Still Midnight. I was looking for the Patty Meehan series but this was one the one that was in (in an e-copy, just by the way, so I downloaded it, oh-so-conveniently, right to my Sony Reader). This one I did read all the way through, because I simply found it more interesting than the other ones. It features a female cop, quite an interesting character, troubled and abrasive, struggling with authority at work and a tragic personal loss and disintegrating marriage at home. If more of the novel had been about her, this might have been the one. But about half of it is spent with a “gang” (they deserve the scare-quotes) of low-lifes who fumble their way through a kidnapping. I thought the account of the victim, haunted by childhood trauma, was very well done, perhaps the best part of the book, but there were too many pieces in the novel overall with no strong unifying connection between them. I couldn’t see what my teaching idea would be for the novel. Mina’s a good writer, though; I’m going to go ahead and order Field of Blood.

Still looking: Next up I hope to find some of Katherine V. Forrest’s Kate Delafield series, Val McDermid’s Lindsay Gordon series, a sample of the Sharyn McCrumb series Karen recommended, something by Asa Larsson, and Helen Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss. Thanks for the suggestions!

6 Comments to Women and Detective Fiction: Update

  1. Don's Gravatar Don
    May 6, 2010 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    You might check out Cara Black. She has a series of crime/detective fiction books set in Paris

  2. Leah Kenworthy's Gravatar Leah Kenworthy
    May 6, 2010 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    A couple of recs from someone (me) who doesn’t really like mysteries:

    Carol O’Connell’s Mallory series: brilliant but seriously damaged female detective. Her stand-alones are good, too. And Laurie R. King’s Kate Martinelli series (I wish she hadn’t dropped this one); A Grave Talent is the first one. Female (lesbian) police detective in San Francisco.

  3. May 6, 2010 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been re-reading the works by Sharyn McCrumb I recommended in case I gave you a bum steer (it has been a while since I read them), and by far the best one in terms of plot is “If I’d Killed Him When I Met Him…” Even so, not enough of it is told from the POV of the female forensic anthropologist that it would be suitable for your course. (The same goes for all the others in the “Elizabeth MacPherson” series, which are such light reads that I can do one a day.)

    Alexander McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series is on the “light reading” end as well. But the locale, Botswana, is an interesting change.

  4. Karen Bennett's Gravatar Karen Bennett
    September 14, 2016 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

    Has anyone mentioned Ariana Franklin’s four-book “Mistress of the Art of Death” series to you? The “detective” is a Sicilian-born doctor (specialty: pathology) named Adelia Aguilar, but she’s practising in… the 12th century. The author (now deceased) was a very talented writer, and even if her books don’t fit into the Women and Detective Fiction course, they might fit into another course, as they’re also historical fiction with a dollop of “romance”. My favourite is the first in the series, *Mistress of the Art of Death* (2007). The others are *The Serpent’s Tale* (2008), also called *The Death Maze*; *Grave Goods* (2009), also called *Relics of the Dead*; and *A Murderous Procession* (2010), also called *The Assassin’s Prayer*. The standalone novel *The Siege Winter* is also set in the 12th century, but it’s unrelated to Adelia, and I thought it was a failure. Franklin also wrote another mystery, but I haven’t read it: *City of Shadows* (set in Berlin in the 1920s).

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