RARA-AVIS: Detective Agency, by Walton and Jones

From: Michael Robison ( miker_zspider@yahoo.com)
Date: 06 Sep 2006

For many years tough guy characters ruled the hardboiled genre, with only the occasional female writer or detective making an appearance. Then, after over fifty years of male dominance, hardboiled women detectives swarmed the stage. Marcia Muller's Edward of the Iron Shoes, published in 1977, is commonly recognized as the cornerstone of the new movement. It was notably followed by Sue Grafton's A is for Alibi in 1982, and the trend showed no signs of diminishing in 1991 when Sara Paretsky introduced her first V.I. Warshawski novel. The irony of a successful female adaptation to a genre reputed for its misogyny has not escaped the critics, and considerable discussion has centered around whether the genre can effectively reflect a female viewpoint or whether it has been too long aligned to a male perspective. In Detective Agency, Priscilla Walton and Manina Jones examine the genre and present their thesis that the literature of the hardboiled female detective invokes feminist themes.


For whatever reason, the authors chose a postmodern flavor of analysis. As self-proclaimed scholars, it's possible that they are simply falling in line with company policy, the postmodern position being predominantly an academic one. The postmoderns have been generous in taking the women's movement under wing and furthering it through the concept of marginalization and pluralism, so maybe their motivation was gratitude or a sense of debt. Although they trot out much of the usual postmodern terminology, it is Foucault's work that carries the most weight. Foucault believed that those in power usually have a story that justifies their position. Credited with the discovery of this profound relationship, he referred to this story as a discourse of power. Also, in order to empower the chosen few, it is necessary to develop a rhetoric that justifies discrimination to outsiders, condemning them to outcast status, referred to in the postmodern vernacular as marginalization and otherness.


This marginalization neatly dovetails into the discrimination and second class status that is a basic premise of feminism. The hardboiled novel has a reputation for being a battle ground between the haves and the have-nots. There are those who are a part of the powerful elite, almost invariably portrayed as selfish, greedy, insensitive, and manipulative, and then there are those outside the center of power. These decentered characters are the much-vaunted marginalized, a prime focus of postmodern feminism. It is particularly appealing that the traditional hardboiled detective himself operates outside the power structure. The authors state that the genre
"actually prescribes that a marginal figure lay claim to the narrative's central perspective." This alienated state parallels the marginalized condition of women and, when the former tough guy is replaced by a female, the chances for feminist discourse abound.


Walton and Jones spend the majority of the book discussing the primary discourse of power that opposes feminism, patriarchy, and the way it is dealt with by the hardboiled female genre. They note how it supports sexual discrimination, and they discuss its impact on other feminine issues such as prostitution, racism, homophobia, domestic abuse, and pornography. The authors observe that the hardboiled female detective is in a prime position to witness and deal with these important issues. In the course of their deconstruction of patriarchy as a transcendental signifier, they develop their own counter discourse. Consistent with postmodern theory, their feminist discourse is constructed with the intention of empowering some and marginalizing others, and it is enlightening to examine the particular path that the authors choose to take. Obviously men, especially heterosexual white males, are saddled with the label and role of oppressor, but beyond this there are a few surprises.

One surprise is that quite a few females get left out in the cold in the discourse of Walter and Jones. The first hint of this occurs when they discuss the results of an online survey they conducted. A question about whether readers perceived feminist themes in female detective fiction drew several negative responses. The authors make it clear that those who disagree with them are either confused, suffering from "a clear disjunction between their own perceived norms and realities," or else stubbornly
"reluctant to confront the politics of popular entertainment."
   Women not astute enough to realize the wisdom of the authors' particular brand of feminism are not the only dispossessed females. Most girls are excluded, also. In an interesting revelation, girls are described as partial and incomplete personages. Sara Paretsky states, "A girl is not a fully realized human being." No wonder "girl" is such a pejorative insult to a feminist. It should be noted that some girls are granted acceptance into the fold. Adolescent whores are wholeheartedly embraced. Age appears to be a crucial reason for exclusion from the chosen feminist few, and marginalization increases as age diminishes. Without a doubt the most severely marginalized are the unborn. Other than as a disposable inconvenience, they are granted no presence whatsoever. They exist in an unnegotiable state of otherness. So strong is the sentiment on this issue, that the authors take the opportunity to abandon any semblance of academic objectivity and participate in some old-fashioned name calling aimed at those who differ in view.


The authors' postmodern analysis is perhaps adequate for exploring the thesis that the hardboiled female detective presents a feminist twist to the hardboiled genre, but it is a dangerous vehicle for the furtherance of the feminist cause which appears later in the book. It is impossible to build a solid moral platform on the murky quagmire of postmodern deconstruction, and this is especially true when invoking Foucault's ideas on the power of discourse. It is possible that the two authors have made a point that the patriarchial discourse is decentered by the female detective, but rather than a new and better way of looking at the world, a postmodern interpretation is inevitably open to a new scepticism, and the deconstruction of the feminine discourse cannot be far off. Even the casual reader can detect the centering of the new discourse, the refusal to see the poll responders' disenchantment with a feminist reading as anything other than naivete, and the powerful language of alienation in discussing the Pro-Life position.

A just and moral framework for the establishment of equal rights and opportunity for women would be better served in the rational light of individualism born of Kant and the Enlightenment. Although feminism might owe a debt to postmodernism for its recognition of the marginalization of people outside the scope of power and influence, its usefulness dies there. Not only does postmodernism offer no unifying concept for common political action, but it also actively opposes the privileging of the transcendental signifiers of Western democracy, liberty, justice, and equality.


Although there are reviews of this book that warn about the difficulties of mastering its scholarly approach, a close inspection reveals that, other than the terminology, there is very little in the text to warrant the caveat. Fields of study often require the necessary evil of a specialized terminology to discuss them, and this is true of literature as well as science, religion, and philosophy. A specialized vocabulary circumscribes important concepts and establishes a convenient and efficient foundation for discussion. This is not the case in Detective Agency.
 The terminology simply serves to obfuscate understanding. The authors appear to be purposely masking the relative modesty of their study with a vocabulary meant to lend it an aura of profundity. Thus, moments of introspection and self-consciousness become "reflexivity," criticism of a position becomes a "destabilization," and the pursuit of understanding is abandoned to the "negotiation" of meaning. Perhaps the most telling indictment of this sort of rhetoric comes from within the ranks of feminism. In an interview in Mother Jones, Gloria Steinem was asked about the abstruse nature of academic feminism. She responded: "Yeah, but that's stupid. Nobody cares about them. That's careerism. These poor women in academia have to talk this silly language that nobody can understand in order to be accepted, they think."

The text is also troubled by contradictory, murky, and ill-advised hypotheses. They stress the importance of the professional status of the female detective, but subsequent text correctly shifts the importance from professionalism to power. The authors emphasize the commercial aspects of the genre to the point of subverting content to economic success, and yet many of the authors discussed are either outside or got their start outside the big publishers in small presses where economic success is measured by the doors being open from day to day, and quitting the day job is not an option.

The book suffers from the lack of sufficient introductory material specifically discussing the hardboiled genre that the female detective was born into. It is hard to see where the female detective is taking the genre without a unified discussion of where it is coming from. The foundational elements of the genre are never clearly set forth, but are only alluded to as asides, and these are often plagued by questionable generalizations and misleading quotes. For example, the hardboiled male detective is repeatedly portrayed as an unemotional, one-dimensional misogynist in the text. Although this is surely the case with some hardboiled literature, it also presents a stereotypic image that hints at something less than honest academic rigor.


There are many positive aspects to Detective Agency. Walton and Jones provide convincing parallels between the hardboiled world and feminist theory, a world where an empowered minority suppresses the majority, a world where social injustice prevails. They present multiple cases of how feminism is served by thematic explorations within the genre. The hardboiled female detective exists in an alienated state, opposing authority, and demonstrating independence and courage in confronting social issues significant to the feminist platform. Ultimately though, their work suffers from three flaws. First, either their research into the traditional hardboiled genre was woefully inadequate, or else they purposely chose to misrepresent it through their own text and multiple quotes that miss the mark. Second, they exhibit an inability to successfully confront opposition to their thesis. They dismiss reader resistance to hardboiled feminism in their poll as naive, and rather than face up to more formidable opponents like Sally Munt, they choose to merely deflect their arguments. Third, they choose to use an elitist academic terminology where a simple and straightforward text would have better served the text. It is perhaps ironic that they would choose to ignore one of the primary precepts of the hardboiled genre, that a message delivered in clear and simple prose is the more forceful and convincing.


__________________________________________________ Do You Yahoo!? Tired of spam? Yahoo! Mail has the best spam protection around http://mail.yahoo.com

------------------------ Yahoo! Groups Sponsor --------------------~--> See what's inside the new Yahoo! Groups email. http://us.click.yahoo.com/3EuRwD/bOaOAA/yQLSAA/kqIolB/TM

RARA-AVIS home page: http://www.miskatonic.org/rara-avis/
  Yahoo! Groups Links

<*> To visit your group on the web, go to:

<*> Your email settings:
    Individual Email | Traditional

<*> To change settings online go to:
    (Yahoo! ID required)

<*> To change settings via email:
    mailto: rara-avis-l-digest@yahoogroups.com
    mailto: rara-avis-l-fullfeatured@yahoogroups.com

<*> To unsubscribe from this group, send an email to:

<*> Your use of Yahoo! Groups is subject to:

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 06 Sep 2006 EDT