Dial Femme for MurderHow Female P.I.’s Inherited the Hard-Boiled World of the Private Dick

Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote (Photo credit: Randy Marcus/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

This article was published in Primal Issue #50 | Spring 2011

A library, doors and windows locked from the inside. A dimly lit alley. A bronze candlestick. A pair of brass knuckles. A body on the billiards table. Elementary, my dear reader: You have the scene of a crime novel, and a private investigator can’t be far away. Now, whether that detective bears a large, egg-shaped head, a preposterous mustache, and a supremely logical mind—or, alternately, a tough-guy demeanor, ice-blue eyes, a cigar, and a Colt .45—depends on whether you’ve found yourself in a story modeled after the British “cozy” novel or the American hard-boiled detective novel.

But when the doorbell finally rings, if the PI both kicks butt and uses tampons, chances are you’ve arrived in one of the books modeled after those of the American feminist detective authors Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, and Sue Grafton. And chances are good that if you’ve grabbed a contemporary bestselling author of the hard-boiled genre, that’s who you’ve found. In the past few decades, these women private eyes and their tough-gal attitudes have managed to almost take over the genre of the classic mystery novel, leaving their bad-boy counterparts relegated to nostalgic-icon status.

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The mystery-novel protagonist got his start with Edgar Allan Poe’s Inspector Dupin and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, but the “Golden Age of Mystery” took off in Britain between the wars, when women like Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and, most notably, Agatha Christie, started churning out British cozies. Their novels generally followed a basic formula wherein, following a murder, upper-class characters are trapped together, perhaps on a country estate during a snowstorm, on a cruise ship, or in a drawing room, until the murderer is discovered. The detective interviews the characters, uncovering sordid secrets—love affairs, gambling debts—that implicate everyone, until using rational deduction he or she discovers the true evildoer.

Finally, the detective calls everyone together for one last confrontation, during which the suspects are eliminated one by one, leaving the murderer to confess. Perhaps you’ve read this novel in one of its many iterations: Murder on the Orient Express or The Mirror Crack’d by Christie, Gaudy Night by Sayers, or anything by contemporary writer P.D. James. Or perhaps you’ve watched the TV series Murder, She Wrote, or played the board game Clue. With Agatha Christie sales at more than 2 billion worldwide, topped only by the Bible and Shakespeare, her formula has permeated pop culture. Pre–World War II America also saw the flourishing of the detective novel, but in a different form, one whose creation was the realm of male writers. The U.S. detective was a rough-and-tumble character who used his street smarts and pugilist sensibilities to pummel his way to a solution through the corrupt and crime-ridden mean streets of the American City.

A classic hard-boiled novel starts out with a dame walking into the dick’s office, dressed to the nines, and possibly slightly breathless (or at least breathy). Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett defined this recognizably masculine genre, which splintered into scads of pulp-crime books with half-dressed women on their covers, along with tantalizing promises like “Men would kill for the secrets locked in her head.” These books begat film noir, comic strips like Dick Tracy, and, eventually, parodies like A Prairie Home Companion’s Guy Noir, 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and the recent HBO series Bored to Death.

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It was in response to those half-dressed, wicked ladies on the covers of crime novels that Sara Paretsky started writing her bestselling series about the feminist detective V.I. “Vic” Warshawski. Why, Paretsky wondered, did the female characters always need to be sex objects first, and then, most likely, bad girls or victims second? Instead, she gave her character the chutzpah to do things the author longed to do herself—or, as she recently said in a public reading, “[Warshawski] pushes the envelope harder than I have the guts to do.” That includes using purely female powers to score points. In 2003’s Blacklist, for instance, Warshawski asks the detectives harassing her if they have a tampon because “my cramps are starting to get the better of me.” Time in the bathroom becomes time for detecting.

Over the years Warshawski has wrangled with the Chicago mafia, corporate scions from a company reminiscent of Walmart, the Catholic Church, hospital executives, and military contractors. In Paretsky’s most recent novel, Body Work, Warshawski seeks to clear the name of an Iraq war vet accused of killing a performance artist. The popularity of Paretsky’s first novel, 1982’s Indemnity Only, paved the way for other women pis, most famously Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone, and, more recently, Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan. These women have carved out a large crossover audience, taking up shelf space in strip-mall book behemoths, as well as in small feminist bookstores and niche shops with names like Sherlock’s Home.

And Paretsky has also participated in a larger plot—donating money and time to abortion-rights causes, founding the group Sisters in Crime in order to offer support and resources to female crime-fiction authors, and serving as a vocal advocate for freedom of speech after 9/11. On the face of it, it makes sense to lump Warshawski and the other fighting female dicks into the feminist tradition of taking over male spaces and male roles—an Annie Oakley-esque “Anything you can do, I can do better,” but this time followed by a swift knee to the groin and a slap of handcuffs. But as Paretsky has said, she wanted her character to be much more than Philip Marlowe in drag. And the fact that these female PIs resuscitated a genre, and continue to be the most popular of contemporary hard-boiled detectives, speaks to the way in which Paretsky hit on something deeper than just a kitschy genre project. Maybe the private dick just makes more sense to us nowadays when she doesn’t have one.

Kathleen Turner as V.I. Warshawski in V.I. Warshawski (Photo credit: Buena Vista Pictures)

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But what is it that makes female detectives so well suited to inherit the trench coat of the grizzled, dashing American detective hero? The answer may have to do not just with who writes the novels, but with the evolution of the detective character itself, and the milieu in which his—and now her—work is done. If the sleuthing hero or heroine of the British cozy looks down on the series of suspects from a perch of pure logic (employing, as Hercule Poirot would say, “the little gray cells”), the American PI has historically earned his outsider status not because he’s transcendentally smarter than everybody else, but because he’s a profound skeptic. Given the surroundings in which American detectives first hung out their fictional shingles, he’d have to be.

Between the two world wars, the United States witnessed the extreme growth of unfettered industrial capitalism and, eventually, its terrible outcome, which came in the form of the Great Depression. As theorist Fredric Jameson wrote in his 1970 essay “On Raymond Chandler,” “The gangland violence of the American big city is felt as a secret destiny, a kind of nemesis lurking beneath the surface of hastily acquired fortunes, anarchic city growth, and impermanent private lives.” So it made sense for authors to create private investigators who were mistrustful loners with a temperamental caution that always serves them well.

In a typical Raymond Chandler story, for instance, the PI will spend 50 pages drinking whiskey with a compadre, only to suddenly knock the other man out—he knew it was the bad guy all along, you see—at the story’s end. He likes his drinking buddy, but is paranoid enough to be suspicious when he’s getting along just a little too well with somebody. The feminist detectives written by Paretsky, Grafton, Lippman, and others also draw on a deep well of distrust in their cases. And it’s not just the general social atmosphere that informs their caution, but their recognition that there is, in fact, a massive conspiracy—let’s call it “patriarchy”—that informs and influences their world.

The fact that Warshawski, in particular, has a backstory that includes unabashed participation in the abortion underground and the left-wing antiwar movements of the 1960s makes the character’s brusqueness and skepticism even more believable. And rather than maintain the social order (the role of the detective in a British cozy), feminists in the United States look much more to disrupt that order—to point out the problems with the dominant narrative, and to force the kind of confrontation that brings about change. But perhaps the most crucial distinction has to do with the fact that the American hard-boiled detective, from his inception, wasn’t a pure character meant to embody order and moral superiority.

In addition to wealth disparities, the 1920s brought Prohibition, with its ensuing mafia control and corruption around liquor distribution. The mass criminalization of previously aboveboard behavior created an extraordinary situation where even regular folks—including purported “good guys” like detectives—nurtured an illicit vice. Literary historian Steven Marcus, writing on Dashiell Hammett, described the problem this way: When drinking alcohol became illegal, the average American suddenly became complicit in crime. And complicity is something a feminist can understand grappling with.

In the past few decades, these women private eyes and their tough-gal attitudes have managed to almost take over the genre of the classic mystery novel, leaving their bad-boy counterparts relegated to nostalgic-icon status.

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Just as the British cozy and its descendants painted a genteel world in which transgressions and appetites lurked under ascots and petticoats, the premise of many a classic American detective novel is that anyone can be the perpetrator of a crime, because everyone is involved in some aspect of a squalid venture. The American detective may fall in love with a gangster’s moll; he may find out that his good friend is actually the killer. The tension in the story stems in part from his own struggle to remain detached from the goings-on, and from his own moral weaknesses. And that, understandably, remains a problem in feminist detective fiction—after all, isn’t the struggle to cultivate egalitarian social relations one of the most quotidian (and most frequently thwarted) feminist struggles?

So, our female PIs aren’t ideal feminists, if there even is such a thing: They frequently rely on masculine protection, they use their sex appeal to crack the case, they distrust other women. But, to my mind at least, these moments don’t compromise the creations of Paretsky and other crime-writing women; in fact, their complicity, and their awareness of it, may actually be what renders these novels so true. V.I. Warshawski clearly recognizes that the world she operates in exploits women, the poor, people of color, and many others. But, just like other hard-boiled detectives—and like other women who uphold feminism—she recognizes that fighting injustice often involves engaging directly with it. After all, unlike the detectives in those British cozies, we have neither the power, the wealth, nor the inimitable genius to transcend the messiness of living day to day.

It’s a fact that makes Warshawski’s fictional crime-fights, and those of her compatriots like Kinsey Millhone and Tess Monaghan, that much more believable, and ever more relevant. These days, of course, feminist detective fiction has new twists. Swedish authors Henning Mankell and the late Stieg Larsson have popularized a whole new craze for left-leaning detective stories that highlight sex trafficking and violence against women as two of the great evils facing modern Sweden. And the female detective has found perhaps her widest audience yet on television: Law and Order: SVU’s Olivia Benson advocates for emergency contraception to be included in rape kits; Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan on Bones is an unapologetic egghead; Detectives Maria LaGuerta and Debra Morgan offer procedural bickering aplenty on Dexter; and Precious Ramotswe is Botswana’s best (okay, only) female private investigator in HBO’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. (And that’s not even accounting for the dozens of female-fronted detective shows no longer on the air, including Prime Suspect, Veronica Mars, The X Files, and Without a Trace.)

All of them signal a diversifying of the female detective, even as the storied male private dick seems to be quietly hanging up his worn trench and going out of business. Maybe it’s the new antismoking laws, but I’d like to think that the girls have just cornered the market.

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by E.L. Fricke
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