Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: RARA-AVIS Digest V3 #843

From: Mark Sullivan (
Date: 24 Aug 2001

I think Carrie may have a point that there is a generational aspect to the question of gender in hardboiled. Being a bit older, I read Grafton and Paretsky when they first came out in paperback. I agree with Jim that they both were very aware of the cultural disonance when they stepped into the primarily male domain; they counted on it. However, I was struck that their debuts were among the most traditonal PI books of their time. Male writers were actively stretching the genre at the time. G & P adhered to it very strictly (I'm only talking about the very early books by each). It was as if they recognized recasting the PI's gender was a huge change and they did not want to risk any other reason for reader tune-out. As they became more sure of themselves and their audience, both authors stretched out.

Personally, I didn't much like Grafton (only read the first two), but do like Paretsky. This had nothing to do with the gender of either, I just didn't like Grafton's writing. Her characters did not involve me. Paretsky's do. Her obvious political outlook never bothered me, but I think I'm far more in agreement with it than Jim. (The political agenda of right-wing authors sometimes bother me, but I agree that good writing is good writing.)

I have gone on to read and enjoy quite a few female writers writing about female PI -- Linda Barnes, Karen Kijewski and, especially, SJ Rozan, among many others.

Carrie also said:

"Making my argument in a more direct manner: I continue not to understand why some consider it appropriate to make comments and harbor preconceptions regarding female characters that would clearly not be appropriate about blacks, gays, etc."

I have problems with this for two reasons. First of all, Grafton, Paretsky, etc, are women writers. I don't mean that makes them inferior or even different, but they are women. It is impossible to forget that, if only because the marketers won't let us. As was noted, a large part
(the majority?) of the mystery market is now women. So marketers make a big deal of these writers' gender. It's a selling point.

There are a few exceptions, like SJ Rozan and Sandra Scoppetone's early books as Jack Early. Both involve women writing male characters in first person. In these cases, they probably find it best to downplay the writers' gender. It is interesting in each case how well these women do the male voice. Rozan alternates gender with each book of her series. Of course, Leigh Brackett could also do the male voice to such a degree that many, including Howard Hawks as seen in the famous story of their meeting, assumed she was a he.

I also don't buy that women are the only writers/characters who are grouped (or belittled) in this way. For instance, David Brandstetter is known for being a homosexual detective. Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones are known for being black detectives, as are numerous others, including Lew Griffin (whose white writer is seldom, if ever, pictured on his books).

Other than white males, descriptions of most other PIs are prefaced by that which makes them different from that norm. And even the white PIs are often reduced to a single unusual trait -- Dan Fortune is a one-armed PI.

Far from a conspiracy to marginalize these characters, these adjectives are attempts to spotlight the singularity of the characters. It is a sign of how far women have come in the genre that female PI is no longer an unusual trait on its own. Originally, Paretsky was just another female PI writer. That alone set her apart. Now she is a strident left-wing female writer.


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