The Governess Did It!: Women Writing Mysteries
I “discovered” Sue Grafton a couple months ago when I started listening to audiobooks in my car. I inherited a love of mystery novels from my grandma and recognized Grafton’s books from my grandma’s bookshelves long ago. After zipping through two novels, I was 100% in love with Kinsey Millhone and started to wonder about other women mystery writers. But first, let’s look at one of the Kinsey Millhone novels, T is for Trespass, on the Her Story Arc Scale of Inclusivity:Not offensive to women = 1 pts*
Kinsey Millhone is a standoffish person in general, cantankerous and resistant to forming lasting relationships. But T is for Trespass is not abrasive at all. I did not notice any representations of women that made me uncomfortable. Any offensive language or ideology was given to the shady characters Kinsey comes into contact with during her investigation, and Grafton often turned such conversations into wry satire.
Features a woman as the main protagonist and/or supporting character = 2 pts
Grafton’s Alphabet mysteries all follow protagonist Kinsey Millhone (she ages from 30 to 40 over the course of the series). Supporting female characters run the gamut from helpful to friendly to conniving to vicious. In T is for Trespass in particular, we learn right away who the antagonist is–a cunning woman called Solana, who lives off of identity theft and money stolen from her murdered nursing clients.
Passes the Bechdel test = 3 pts
Yes, a few times, though not as often as you’d think. Though both protagonist and antagonist are women, the victim in T is for Trespass is a man, and a lot of the conversation revolves around him. However, Kinsey and Solana’s exchanges with each other and the people around them still pass the Bechdel test more than once.
Artistic and/or Entertaining = 4 pts
I love mysteries so this was definitely entertaining to me. Kinsey has the best voice–she is cynical and says exactly what you wish you could say. She’s aware of her faults (previous books A-S cover her backstory more thoroughly) but doesn’t let them get in the way of dogged detective work. She’s definitely someone you want on your side when you’re in trouble. We also get inside the head of antagonist Solana, adding a definite creepy layer to the story.
Above and Beyond General Media = 5 pts
When you think of great detective stories, male protagonists probably spring first to mind (hint: his name rhymes with Shmerlock). But think a little harder, and behind the Philip Marlowes are the Miss Marples, the Precious Ramotswes, the Kay Scarpettas.* And not surprisingly, these female characters are often written by women authors. I did a little investigating myself and found two very good papers on modern women mystery writers and their female characters.
The first paper, a thesis called ‘”In the business of believing women’s stories”: Feminism through detective fiction (Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton)’ by Nora Martin, argues that feminism and hard-boiled detective fiction are not mutually exclusive. In fact, claims Martin, authors Paretsky and Grafton use their characters as a mouthpiece for feminism, in subtle and overt ways. Paretsky’s V.I. is vocal about women’s issues, and they often play out in the plot. Grafton’s Kinsey is so self-assured that asking her if she was a feminist would earn you a “duh” eye roll. Her lived accomplishments are the feminist statement.
The second paper, a dissertation by Laura Ng called “Feminist Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction As Political Protest In the Tradition of Women Proletarian Writers of the 1930s” makes complimentary claims about modern detective fiction’s feminist leanings. Ng claims modern feminist hard-boiled detective fiction grew from other women writers, particularly proletarian writers and their struggles. She details how the female detective character differs from the male in her relationships to violence, class structure, physicality, language, community and more.
What makes these two papers so cool is that they complement each other. Martin dismisses the idea that feminist detective fiction came from masculine detective fic, and focuses on how these texts encourage feminist thinking in the reader. Ng starts her dissertation with the assumption that these texts encourage feminism, and goes on to prove how they did not come from masculine detective fic origins. Each women has plenty of examples of how female detective fiction is positive, feminist, and definitely not a pale attempt to copy male detective. These women writers and characters hold their own.
So is T is for Trespass, or Sue Grafton, above and beyond the general media? No! Sue Grafton isn’t above and beyond, she’s one of many awesome women writers writing about women. So…I’m still going to give her the full five points for this section. Because that’s what we want, right? Not having to reward people for managing to represent women well. We want everyone to be representing women so well that it becomes a norm, and that’s why Grafton still earns a 15/15 on the Scale.
Who’s your favorite female mystery-solver? Let me know in the comments!
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*This is a category that could get very complicated, very quickly, if we tried to list everything that could be offensive to women. Instead, we use this category as a way of showing our own personal reaction to whatever we are reviewing. All contributors to this site are women and can speak from a woman’s perspective. However, no woman can speak for all women so we do our best to explain our choice one way or the other. We encourage all readers to share their opinions in the comments of every post if they want to express agreement or disagreement with our rankings.
*Not to mention about a million kick-ass ladies on TV, movies, comics, female/feminist characters written by men, male-feminst characters written by women…