The detective novel/mystery novel is by far not a strictly male genre, meaning that there are not just male authors writing detective fiction about male investigators. Some of the authors of the early British mystery novels were female; there would be no Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple without Agatha Christie; and Dorothy L. Sayers is just another important female author from that time.
The hard-boiled detective sub genre, however, for a long time was dominated by male authors who invented male detectives, while most female hard-boiled detectives were created and put into the scene as late as in the 1990s in the US. The readership is mostly female, too. There are but very few publications on female detectives of this kind or the respective authors.
The female hard-boiled detective is “different” in many ways, since she acts not as her male counterparts, nor as the standard female detective, and she is generally crossing gender boundaries more often than not. And this does not mean simply an androgynous appearance. William Klink, former Professor of Languages and Literature at the College of Southern Maryland, has investigated the many features of this particular genre. Here in The Hard-Boiled Female Detective Novel, he covers a lot of angles in his unique and very special study. Particularly the feminist point of view is referred to very often. Nevertheless, very much writing on the hardboiled female detective was, in fact, done by women. As it turns out (for Klink), there is some sort of approach to the ways these novels are written and consumed, mostly by female readers. As stated continuously, there is not just one simple difference that separates the male from the female hard-boiled detectives and tells the female detective from the hardboiled investigator.
There are very many elements and Klink tries to go into details: “Although most of the readership of hard-boiled detective novels written by female authors seems to be female, these same novels actually do have an appeal for men. The appeal for men is virtually unstudied, however, perhaps there is no ‘male’ kind of critical theory from which to approach the sub genre. There is a way, however, to create such a theory and a means to apply that theory to the novels of Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, Linda Barnes, Sandra West Prowell, Edna Buchanan, Janet Evanovich, Laura Lippman, Valerie Wilson Wesley, Janet Dawson, and Jen Banbury. The place to start is, ironically, feminist literature theory …”
There are further differences in character invention, that clearly tell male from female hard-boiled detectives. As it seems, character and character development in these novels are more important than the plot. Furthermore, while all female characters referred to do work out (to be fit for the job and also to attract men physically), dress to reflect social expectations and change status while putting on clothing as disguise and watch their diet. They arrange their homes as a sanctuary, measure themselves in terms of the quality and number of social relationships and family ties, find physical relationships and mostly have bad sex, and use their cars and technology not as a symbol of status but as a necessary commodity. Their fictional male counterparts, however, do not work out, do not care much about their appearance, completely neglect the tidiness or arrangement of their homes, have very few personal relationships if any, have sexual encounters without love and rarely care about their cars either.
With what little data there is (collected at readings and from amazon’s comments section), Klink suggests that about 90% of the readers of female hard-boiled detective fiction actually are female and 90% of these are over forty. And the authors (many are members of the women’s mystery club “Sisters in Crime”) speaking about their heroines always describe them as better, more perfect and improved versions of themselves in a physical and intellectual way.
Klink very carefully checks the works of each author mentioned (apart from the writers mentioned in the quotation above, he investigates the works of S. J. Rozan, Nancy Bush, Mercedes Lackey and Gemma Halliday.) His approach is mostly in collecting data on adjectives used to describe male and female characters in the novel, the female detectives’ food habits, general motifs used, what the woman appears to look like, and their sex life. And what kind of person she would be in real life and how serious she would appear then. At least that is what one gets out the respective final paragraphs documenting each author.
And Klink would not tire throughout the book to express that the study finally is what a male reader gets out of reading the novels. It is the male perspective, that again, is an important part of the female hard-boiled detectives’ stream of consciousness since many of the characters devote a lot of energy and mind to the way they look, and may be evaluated and even desired by men.
The female authors structure novels of this kind from a set of tropes taken from stories with male protagonists, according to Klink. With this information, it is easy to see that the hard-boiled female detectives were, first of all, modeled on their male counterparts, without possessing the same physical qualities and sharing a very different approach to solving puzzles and problems and using altogether contrasting sorts of strategies and violence. (While some female investigators develop quite a liking for beating up men in situations of physical encounter and danger just as their male counterparts.)
“To the male gaze, on the other hand, these imagined women present no real threat. Instead, what they represent is a conceptualization of women that is an improvement over the Victorianized version of femininity that pervades the culture before these novels became popular. Thereafter, these hardboiled heroines represent women as potentially more like a man and therefore more desirable than the Victorian model.”
Fans of detective fiction with a female investigator will enjoy this book.
William R. Klink. The Hard-Boiled Female Detective Novel: A Study of a Popular Literary Genre. Edwin Mellen Press, 2014, 371 p.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2015