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  KALTIO 5/2002: Dead on Arrival - Do Feminist Detective Stories Exist? Nina Työlahti

In English



Dead On Arrival

Does feminist detective story exist?

Kaltio 5/02

Finnish text: Nina Työlahti
English translation: Anniina Vuori

The writer is a teaching assistant for general literature at the department of Art and Anthropology in the
University of Oulu.

Detective stories expand the vocabulary of an inspired reader without noticing. Everyone who is familiar with the current trend of detective stories knows their M.O's and D.O.A's, not to mention the more dignified Habeas Corpus. Modus Operandi (M.O.) tells the means of the murder, which is important for profiling a serial killer. Dead on Arrival brings its own twist into the story, for it tells that the victim has been already dead when arriving to the hospital--the crucial identification of the murderer will never be heard.

However, the identities of the detectives solving murder cases are very clear. One of the crucial and public sides of solving a murder is the name of the detective. You need name to create more mysteries: today's detective stories have a carefully selected brand. That is no news, and publishers work according to the readers' wishes as well as their own. But what is news is that female detectives have been popular among readers for some time already. Thus, there has been talk of feminist detective stories being born.

Female detectives have been a part of detective stories for a long time now, but they have been oriented for their profession only for a short while. Making detective a profession has caused the previously so common role of an old maid to vanish from the gallery of female detectives. Agatha Christie's Miss Marple would be impossible to create in today's detective literature, where the credibility achieved through one's job is highlighted. In addition to professionalism, superhuman control over the brain still characterises a good detective. Highly educated pathologist should be the brightest in the field, and the crime scene investigator who is skilled in many areas cannot afford any mistakes either. Thus, average people are still not presented in detective stories. Using costumes, like Sherlock Holmes, still works; albeit, in a new way. Sara Paretsky's famous female detective wears a slightly feminine silk dress - according to the female role - only when she wants to get out of sight.

A Castle in Spain

Nicole Décuré
points out how the whole detective genre has been changed by the appearance of female authors, which started in the 80s. In the works of feminist authors, everyday life is surprisingly present in the story instead of unrealistic upper class life, or that of a hard-boiled outcast. Lorraine Page of Lynda La Plante does laundry, thinks about what groceries to buy, and tries to make her way back to ordinary life after being assaulted. Facing violence is a new area for female authors of detective stories. Barbara Wilson takes her readers unnervingly close to the reality of violence when she describes her detective, Pam Nilsen, being raped. The demand of distance and the protagonist's inviolability in traditional detective literature disappears when the reader, through first person narration, is caught in the reality with which the traditional detective literature has only played before.

Kathleen Gregory Klein considers the relationship between a detective and a victim complicated. A detective becomes a detective only because a criminal has committed a crime. The detective always exercises power and the victim is the one over whom the power is exercised. As the investigations proceed, the victim becomes less and less visible and the criminal more and more so. The basic equation in Klein's detective literature resembles the equation produced by our dominant patriarchal life style, where the woman is always a victim. Thus, because the woman can never exercise power, she cannot be made into a detective with any amount of effort. That is why Leena Lehtolainen's Maria Kallio and Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta are in their subversiveness as close to reality as the famous castle in Spain, "a place, or dream of a place, which does not exist".

The most problematic aspect of feminist detective stories is the femininity itself. When feminism came to universities in the 70s and feminist literary research started to resemble a method, many female researchers got interested in writing female detective stories. Amanda Cross (a.k.a. Carolyn G. Heilbrun) and Della Borton (a.k.a. Lynette Carpenter) are examples of women who taught feminist critique and wrote feminist detective stories using their pseudonyms. Why is this? Partly because it was possible to study female images created by canonized male authors through the predominant criticism on images of women. These images showed the rather poor knowledge male authors had of their subject. Images of women criticism looked for female stereotypes both in books by male authors and in the critical categories male critics use to review books written by women. "As long as we can't understand the presumptions directed at us, we can't understand ourselves," Adrienne Rich said.

It was also thought that the least that could be done was to produce a positive image of women, and so an army of strong, capable women took over detective stories. Along with strong women, questioning the canon and the prevailing system in literature became a part of the feminist thinking process. Furthermore, objecting the dominating belief system and customs became central in the feminist practice. But does having a female protagonist make a detective story feminist? And is it morally less questionable when a woman satisfies the voyeurism which both the main character and the reader have and which detective stories enable, as Heta Pyrhönen puts it? Helen Zahav's classic Dirty Weekend shows how a woman carries out her revenge fantasies in a massacre of men during one weekend. Only the power shifts, subordination stays. 

An Opposing Reader Reads Detective Stories

It is generally thought that detective literature is based on conventions. The uncertainties within a controlled chaos form the reader's pleasure. If  breaking the conventions is the most important thing according to the feminist ideas, a feminist detective story cannot exist as such, or at least it is always in the process of arriving: as a corpse that cannot tell, as a victim that is dead on arrival.

Close to the feminist detective stories came the lesbian detective stories of the 1980s, which clearly presented alternative worlds with the main character's sexual orientation. Traditional detective stories have taken up a pathological attitude towards homosexuality. It is easy to find the offender among the "perverts", and thus not threaten the heterosexual dream. Mary Wing's Emma Victor parodies the manly world of hard-boiled detective literature, and Gillian Slovo's Kate Baier conducts her working class discussion in Great Britain eroded by Thatcherism. Understandably, lesbian detective stories saw outside world as a multiple threat, as Anna Wilson points out.

Even the lesbian detective stories calmed down by the 1990s. In Manda Scott's Kellen Stewart, specialism, once again of the medical type, measures up to Kay Scarpeta's skills. Val McDermid's Kate Brannigan is a straight woman solving the problems of her lesbian friends. The private life of gorgeous senior officer Hanne Wilhelmsen, created by Anna Holt, is pictured as extremely private and piquant. Facing another person is still a difficult thing in today's detective stories. Even Annika Bengtzon of Liza Marklund, who has lately become famous in Scandinavia, still sticks tightly to the path of a basic Swedish dream. The crook in Paradise is a former Yugoslavian who has wormed his way to Sweden. The new male friend is saved from a career woman's arms in order to start a nuclear family.

According to Judith Fetterley, women are taught as readers, teachers and researchers to think like men, to identify with a male point of view and to accept the male value system as normal and correct. One of the central principles of this is misogyny, hatred of women. The masculine point of view affects through interpellation, it adjusts the reader to the values and presuppositions of the text. Sally R. Munt's view of the modern feminist detective stories as a text where two kinds of narrations prevail at the same time illuminates the problem well: the text is revolutionary on surface, but under it the narration is still very conservative. The idea of a similar reader fits well with the reading of feminist detective stories - as one enjoys, one can also follow the text - like a real detective.

About translations and publishing...

"Perhaps Finland is not ready for lesbian heroines after all, at least according to the publisher", writes Päivi Almgren and wonders about the way Val McDermid was translated into Finnish in 1999. Kristiina Markkanen, on the other hand, regards McDermid's already published works Dead Beat 1992 (Sammunut syke 1998) and Kick Back 1993 (Takaisku 1999) as test pieces, where the author's true talent does not show yet. McDermid's long awaited The Mermaids Singing (1995) was translated into Piinapenkki (Rack [meaning solely the Medieval device of torture -ed.]), which made a reviewer sigh at the name choice of the Finnish version.

What about the effect which the delay in translation has on the reading of the story? An example of this is Barbara Wilson's literary production of the 1980s, which lost its sharpest political edge before it was translated. Seems like the publishing policy in this world is to let classics like Gillian Slovon and Mary Wing fall into an out-of-print state so very easily.

Barbara Wilson's latest Cassandra Reilly mystery The Death of a Much-Travelled Woman (1998) is worth a read. In it, a lesbian heroine solves crime around the world from Hawaii to Helsinki, protected by her official profession as a translator. Many different crimes are under investigation in these short stories - one is titled 'Murder at the International Feminist Book Fair'...


Links worth a closer look:
Sisters in Crime organization for authors:

Feminist mystery corner: