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You’ve Come a Long Way Baby; Feminist Crime Fiction

Remember the gumshoe lured into a trap by a beguiling femme fatale? If he was lucky, he survived and went on to marry the good girl. This was the staple of classic crime fiction and Hollywood film noir. There were two kinds of girls: the ones guys can’t resist, and those they marry, either sexy bad girls and “cute kid” good girls. Our male protagonist was a loner—usually a drinker—who prowled the mean streets, subject to his own unwritten code, but outside the law. Like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, they navigated between the cops and the mob to stay alive and catch their man… or woman.

With women writers and so many women readers, times have certainly changed. Tough women of crime fiction such as Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, and Patricia Cornwell’s Dr. Kay Scarpetta did what the men do, only wearing heels. Unlike their male counterparts, these no nonsense women face down discrimination and expose their vulnerabilities. Neither vixen nor vamp, these women characters stepped into the man’s world of crime fiction with grace and grit.

Whereas women traditional mystery writers such as Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayer featured women protagonists solving mysteries by ferreting out the murderer from amongst a cast of

December 1976, American writer Patricia Highsmith at home in the village of Moncourt, near Fontainebleau. -Image by © Jacques Pavlovsky/Sygma/Corbis

memorable characters, with Patricia Highsmith, that all changed. Highsmith introduced readers to psychological thrillers, featuring women in tough situations, set in familiar domestic spaces, what is now known as the domestic thriller. In these novels there is more emotional violence than physical violence. And, the mysteries are not so much who dunnits, but why; these are mysteries of the hearts and minds of women. Often these stories take place in the suburbs and small towns rather than the gritty alleys of cities.

With Gillian Flynn’s wildly popular GONE GIRL, and its successor, Paula Hawkin’s GIRL ON THE TRAIN, the women themselves become the mystery. Who are these “girls” and what are they up to? In these novels, the inner life of the protagonist is as much of a mystery as the action. Unreliable narrators, like the femme fatales in classic crime fiction, deceive the reader and lure male characters and the reader into their traps. But, the image of the deceitful woman who lies and manipulates is nothing new. It was also a stable of macho detective fiction. If earlier women authors revived the crime genre by giving us strong women detective characters pursuing the bad guys in a man’s world, the latest trend gives us the femme fatale as the deceitful narrator and protagonist. The reader is taken for a joy ride along with the other characters in a world that embraces “alternative facts.”

Just because a crime novel features a woman and is written by a woman, doesn’t make it feminist. In fact, lots of novels that feature women protagonists and are written by women, like the last two I mentioned, give us crazy or lying women femme fatales, or stereotypically passive women characters, or situations that endorse patriarchy.

Fortunately, for readers who prefer strong women with integrity, even if also flawed, there are plenty of feminist mysteries and thrillers that give us both tough women protagonists and address larger social issues women face today, issues such as domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking, along with relationships, motherhood, and navigating career and family. Of the authors I’ve mentioned so far, Highsmith and Paretsky are particularly concerned with social justice for women, whether on the home front or in the working force. The Scottish novelist, Denise Mina,

Denise Mina

develops strong and complex women characters shaped by violence against women, but not beaten by it. Her protagonists refuse to be defined as victims. Mina’s Garnethill series features ex-psychiatric patient and sexual abuse survivor, Maureen O’Donnell who seeks justice on her own terms in the dreich of Edinburgh.

For my own part, with The Jessica James Mysteries I’ve gone from writing nonfiction books about women’s issues such as sexual assault, human trafficking, and new reproductive technologies, to writing mysteries featuring tough and quirky women characters who defy stereotypes while fighting the bad guys, and facing down injustice, especially towards women. Hopefully, my novels not only entertain and provoke a few laughs, but also bring attention to women’s issues not always discussed in popular culture.

Kelly Oliver is the award-winning author of The Jessica James Mystery Series, including WOLF (July 2016), COYOTE (August 2016), and most recently FOX (May 2017). Her first novel, WOLF won the IPPY Gold Medal for best Thriller/Mystery, is a finalist for the Forward Magazine award for best mystery, and was voted number one Women’s Mysteries on Goodreads. When she’s not writing novels, Kelly is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, and the author of thirteen nonfiction books, and over 100 articles, on issues such as campus rape, reproductive technologies, women and the media, animals and the environment. Her work has been translated into eight languages. She has published in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Review of Books, and been featured on ABC news, CSPAN books, the Canadian Broadcasting Network, and various radio programs.