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Fiction's Female Sleuths Bring Compassion to Crime-Solving

A writer's response to the recent trend is that while first generation fits the male model, the second wave will be less predictable.


Writer Catherine Dain of Chatsworth, author of a series featuring female sleuth Freddie O'Neal, responded to my recent column on fictional detectives who wear skirts but act like men. Dain was nominated for a Shamus for "Lay It on the Line." Her newest Freddie O'Neal is "The Luck of the Draw."

Dear Pat:

Your friend thinks V.I. Warshawski is a guy? I guess worrying about blood stains on her favorite scarf wasn't feminine enough to suit him. She'll have to take a chromosome test. For what it's worth, if she were something more than fictional, I think she'd pass. And so would most of the other female P.I.s.

V.I. Warshawski does have a lot in common with her male counterparts, including problems with commitment and an amazing lack of fear. As one of the first women through the barrier into a previously male-dominated world, however, she also has a lot in common with first women through the barriers in every walk of life.

The tendency, in law, medicine and business, as well as fiction, is for the first group of women to conform to the male model. And they generally don't describe themselves as either liberated or victimized because that isn't how they view the world.

Thus, in "Bet Against the House," Freddie O'Neal's new boyfriend, the university professor, can offer a rough sketch of her psyche just from what he knows about the personality profile of first-generation female entrepreneurs. The second generation, he points out, is less predictable.

And the same is true of second-generation fictional female P.I.s: Kay Scarpetta may be an unvarnished male model, but Jeri Howard, Janet Dawson's P.I., worries about a date for New Year's Eve.

In fact, women writers with female protagonists are the ones who have made it possible for Elvis Cole and Harry Bosch to be such caring guys. In early P.I. fiction, the woman had to be either the victim or the perpetrator, because she couldn't come back in the next book.

The sea change in private eye fiction during the past 15 years has been the rise of the protagonist as character, not simply as plot device. Women writers are largely responsible for this trend toward what Marcia Muller has termed "humanistic crime fiction."

Even V.I. Warshawski and Kay Scarpetta are risking their lives for friends because they care, rather than for strangers because they have nothing to lose. Philip Marlowe didn't have friends. The Continental Op didn't have a name.

I suspect there is another construct to explain why so many fictional women are single, one built around the cultural notion that marriage, for women, is the end of the adventure and the beginning of the second shift. Thus, Nancy Drew can't grow up and marry Ned Nickerson. But that's an argument for another day.

By the way, you might want to check the figure you quoted, that 49% of mystery writers are women. In the survey I saw, while 49% of paperback writers were women, only 30% of hardcover writers were women. But that, too, is an argument for another day.

Are female P.I.s untraditional women? Sure. And if you've read Carolyn Heilbrun's "Writing a Woman's Life," you know that they are planted firmly in the historical tradition of untraditional women.

A P.I. packing a gun inside her discount Calvin Klein suit sounds pretty good to me. I hope she has a date for New Year's Eve--as long as the guy is the victim or the perpetrator. I wouldn't want to see him come back in the next book.

Point well taken. Two small notes. The 49% figure on women writing suspense fiction was from a recent piece in the Dallas Morning News. The figure was for 1995, and the reporter did not distinguish between paper and hardback. And I have read the Heilbrun book.


Writer Harlan Ellison also wrote to clarify some misimpressions that might have resulted from my June 27 column on writer Robyn James that mentioned Ellison's association with Dangerous Visions bookstore in Studio City (a much-appreciated compliment and other pleasantries have been edited out):

Ms. Marano did not "give me 2% of the business"--either as a thank you or by my demand. As a term of the legal agreement between my corporation and the bookstore, franchising Ms. Marano to use the name Dangerous Visions--a copyrighted and trademark-registered signature--Ms. Marano has pledged 2% of the store's profits, said monies to be divided on a pro rata basis among authors in the "Dangerous Visions" books.

I am in no way a recipient of these kopecks, save only in my capacity as the author of one story. That nets me one (1) pro rata share of any profits that may eventually materialize. (It has been 15 years since we made the deal, and there hasn't been a profit disbursement yet. But then, keeping an independent bookstore above the Plimsoll line is a stalwart task, as you no doubt understand.)

Thus, in my capacity as editor of the DV books, and consequently the paymaster of my authors' royalties, I oversee their (thus-far nonexistent) 2% of the bookstore's profits. I own nothing.

I hope this makes the arrangement clearer. In the article it did seem as if I--"acerbic writer"--had in some way demanded a piece of the bookstore's action. Thank you for allowing me a moment to clear this up.

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