The Female Dick and the Crisis of Heterosexuality

Citation metadata

Author: Ann Wilson
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Date: 2001
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay; Excerpt
Length: 2,451 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

[(essay date 1995) In the following excerpt, Wilson discusses the protagonists of novelists Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, and Sara Paretsky, concluding that "Female hard-boiled fiction offers a mild challenge to the dominant social order but not a radical assault on it."]

In recent years, critics have hailed the work of three American writers--Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, and Sara Paretsky--as revising, perhaps even renewing, the tradition of the hard-boiled detective novel. Each of the writers has created a detective who is a single woman in her mid-thirties, and who works as a licensed private investigator. Physically and mentally tough, willing to take tremendous personal risks as she negotiates the treacherous underworld of urban America, each of these detectives recalls the tradition of Sam Spade more than that of Miss Marple. For these authors, the problem is one of having the heroine occupy a male subject position--the role of hard-boiled detective--without making her seem as if she is a man in drag. The negotiations of gender and sexuality in Grafton, Muller, and Paretsky are deft attempts to remain faithful to the tradition of tough-guy detective fiction while disrupting its gender codes. The three novelists retain for these heterosexual women detectives the traditional self-sufficient individualism of the private investigator even though they are writing within a genre which has always defined women in relation to male loners.

The hard-boiled detective is a familiar figure in the novels best exemplified by those of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and in the cinematic adaptations of those works. Worldly-wise, and cynical because he has stared corruption dead in the face, the hard-boiled detective has nevertheless adopted only a veneer of inaccessibility. Despite appearing to be immune to the contagion of the world, he is vulnerable underneath and capable of falling in love with a pretty girl--who often turns out to be treacherous, a femme fatale, an agent of evil. The attractive woman is duplicitous, her physical beauty working a deadly web in concert with her depraved spirit. This scheme of gender relations gives hard-boiled fiction a decidedly male, even misogynistic, quality.

Another feature contributing to the genre's tough-guy masculinity is the gritty, unrefined language, evoking a 'realistic' sense of place, even when that place is ugly. Critics have suggested that the willingness to describe reality as the hard-boiled gumshoe sees it, neither flinching when faced with corruption nor softening his description to spare the sensibility of the audience, points to Ernest Hemingway's influence. That hard-boiled detective fiction seems to be a hyper-masculine form gives rise to the question, Why are so many women writers and readers interested in this kind of novel?

The primary appeal is readily evident: a heroine modeled on a hard-boiled detective is a woman who is self-reliant and independent, a prototype of a feminist ideal. Each of the three authors under discussion has created a detective who is university educated, her trained intellect finding a corollary in a trained body maintained through rigorous physical exercise. In top shape both mentally and...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100033942