Saying Ourselves: Women of Color Writing Detective Fiction

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Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,463 words

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[(essay date 1997) In the following essay, Willen addresses the contributions of women of color to detective fiction.]

The impact of feminist writers on American detective fiction is becoming well documented. Maureen T. Reddy studies that impact in Sisters in Crime: Feminism and the Crime Novel where she examines the work of Amanda Cross, Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, and others. She discovers in their work a “countertradition”:

The basic features shared to varying degrees by novels in this countertradition are the violation of linear progress, the ultimate absence of authority as conventionally defined, and the use of a dialogic form [i.e., a text in which a variety of ideas and voices speak (150)]. This countertradition shares with feminist work in other genres an essential subversiveness, with women writers borrowing familiar features of detective fiction in order to turn them upside down and inside out, exposing the genre’s fundamental conservatism and challenging the reader to rethink his/her assumptions.(2)Reddy detects this subversiveness in the work of feminist crime writers who “frequently locate the source of crime in attitudes that underpin the patriarchy” (148), that is, in assumptions about roles and power. Reddy recognizes, however, an “obvious lacuna” in the new wave of feminist detective fiction. This study addresses that lacuna, the absence of writers and protagonists who are Latina, African American, and Native American.1

Since the 1988 publication of Reddy’s work, women of color have begun to produce detective fiction.2 Their novels demonstrate a new subversiveness which critiques historical as well as current social issues. Though not including crime writers who are women of color, critics Coward and Semple link women detective writers and social issues: “And women seem to have been at the forefront of pulling detective fiction away from the predictable and towards a more psychological and social exploration of crime” (54). Women of color take that exploration several steps further, since they not only look at the social underpinnings of crime, but, more globally, they also critique the roles and identities assigned to minority women. Not inconsequentially, these writers critique detective fiction and create new parameters for that genre—parameters so new that they bring into question the genre’s very definition.

To illustrate the innovations that women of color are bringing to detective fiction, this analysis looks at three novels, Lucha Corpi’s Eulogy for a Brown Angel (1992), Linda Hogan’s Mean Spirit (1990), and Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam (1992). At first glance, little more than minority status links these writers and their works. Mexican American Corpi’s protagonist, Gloria Damasco, works intermittently over an eighteen-year period to find the murderer of a young child, slain during the 1970 National Chicano Moratorium demonstrations in Los Angeles. Chickasaw writer Hogan uses the murder of a wealthy Osage woman during the violent era of oil exploration in Oklahoma Indian Territory as the point of departure for the sleuthing of an unlikely pair, a Native American federal investigator and the dead woman’s cousin. And Neely’s Blanche, both African American, uses the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100123699