Thursday, January 28, 2010

Fine Lines...

As I’ve mentioned before here at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist..., crime fiction is, in many ways, as much a social commentary as it is anything else. Crime fiction writers sometimes address social issues quite directly; at other times, the issues are taken up in a more subtle way, but they are no less present for that. One of the important social issues we’ve faced is the roles that men and women should play, and how changes in those roles play out in the larger world and in the family. There’s a strong argument that women’s and men’s roles are not nearly as circumscribed as they were, and in many cultures, that’s probably true. If it is, then classic crime fiction was arguably far ahead of its time, and today’s crime fiction is an interesting barometer of the way those roles continue to evolve.

During the Victorian Era, men’s and women’s social roles were clearly laid out, and there was a great deal of social pressure not to cross “gender lines.” And yet, we see a very interesting exception to this in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia. In that story, Holmes takes on a commission to find a damaging photograph of the King of Bohemia with a former lover, Irene Adler. In searching for the photograph, Holmes goes up against a very worthy opponent in Adler. He traces her, and the incriminating photograph, but she outwits him. In the end, she returns the photograph by choice, not by coercion or ruse. In fact, Holmes recognizes in Adler a similar quickness of mind to his own. Unlike the stereotypical Victorian woman, Adler’s adventuresome and far from demure. Many people argue that, in depicting Irene Adler as a smart and capable opponent for Holmes, Doyle was ahead of his time.

Other writers of what we call classic crime fiction were also arguably ahead of their times when it came to addressing men’s and women’s social roles. For example, Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts) takes up the issue of social roles directly. In that novel, Hercule Poirot investigates the poisoning murder of a well-liked clergyman, Stephan Babbington. One of his parishioners, Lady Mary Lytton Gore, and her daughter, Hermione “Egg” Lytton Gore, attend the cocktail party during which Babbington is killed, and thus, they become involved in the case. That’s especially true of Egg, who is eager to do some active detection. In Egg, Christie gives us an intelligent young woman who doesn’t wave a proverbial handkerchief or wring her hands in distress. In fact, her eager involvement is a source of concern to her mother, who has a much more typically Victorian outlook on the way in which a “lady” is “supposed to” behave.

Even more actively involved in detection is Christie’s Prudence “Tuppence” Cowley Beresford. As the Tommy and Tuppence Beresford series begins, just after World War I, Tuppence is one half of the Young Adventurers, Ltd. She and her partner, later husband, become equally involved in a mystery involving murder and international espionage. As the series goes on, we see that, although the two Beresfords have different approaches to solving mysteries, they participate equally and each contributes to the solutions of their cases. Christie’s Miss Marple, too, takes the lead in the cases in which she’s involved. Miss Marple doesn’t have a professional career, so in that way (and others), she stays within the social roles of her times, but within those roles, she’s depicted as just as intelligent and quick-witted as any of the male characters.

Dorothy Sayers is another writer who could be said to have been ahead of her time on the issue of men’s and women’s social roles. Her Harriet Vane is an independent, intelligent mystery novelist who plays vital roles in many of Lord Peter Wimsey’s cases. In some ways, Harriet plays traditional “female” roles. For instance, in Strong Poison, we learn that one of the important reasons behind her quarrel with her former lover, Philip Boyes, is that she was angry at her reputation having suffered because she lived with Boyes without being married to him. And yet, Harriet Vane is a strong character in her own right who is bright, intuitive and a strong partner for Wimsey.

That’s also true of Ngaio Marsh’s Agatha Troy, who’s married to Inspector Roderick Alleyn. She doesn’t actively do a lot of investigating, but she’s a strong, intelligent and independent character. She’s a noted artist, and in fact, her commissions get Alleyn involved in more than one case.

We also see some interesting examples of men who step outside of traditional roles in classic crime fiction. For instance, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is a “hardboiled” detective who, it would seem, is the quintessential “he-man” of that genre. And yet, in The Big Kill, Hammer takes in an orphaned toddler when the child’s father is murdered. He makes a commitment to the boy, too, and doesn’t just “farm him out” to the nearest orphanage.

There are, of course, other examples of classic crime fiction that show the blurring of men’s and women’s social roles. Those lines have increasingly been crossed in more recent crime fiction. For example, in Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and fiancé of Mma.Precious Ramotswe, is persuaded to take in two orphaned foster children even though traditionally, men don’t get as involved in raising children. Even though both Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni and his fiancée were raised with more traditional views about men’s and women’s roles, it’s Precious Ramotswe who’s a little reluctant to take on the responsibility of the children at first. In some ways, these two characters take on traditional gender roles, but in several ways, those roles are not as clear. We also see an interesting blurring of social roles in the character of Grace Maktusi, assistant detective and manager of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. She’s an educated professional who, in fact, is very much a feminist. Yet, she wants to get married; she would like to find a man whom she can respect and who will treat her well.

There’s also an interesting set of complicated roles for men and women in Laurien Berenson’s Melanie Travis series. Melanie Travis is a teacher and later tutor with a husband, two sons and five Standard Poodles. She’s also an accomplished amateur sleuth. We get to see some interesting dynamics in the relationship between Melanie and her husband, Sam Driver. In some ways, they play traditional roles. But we also see a blurring of those roles. They’re both professionals, and they share the responsibility for the children and the house as well. Interestingly, we see in Melanie some of the conflicts that result from those blurred roles. She’s a proud and loving mother, and sometimes torn between that role and her sleuthing. Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon faces the same dilemmas as a consequence of the blurring of the roles she plays. At the same time that she’s a mother and partner, she’s also a professional investigative journalist, and balancing those roles is difficult for her at times.

We see one of the most interesting (and funniest) blurring of social roles in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, who’s a professional bounty hunter. Her job is very much a traditionally “male” job, and she faces at least as much danger as any man in the business. And yet, in some ways, she’s traditionally feminine. For instance, there’s more than one witty discussion in the Plum series about fitting in manicures and hair styling, and wearing attractive high heels while “on the job.”

The social roles that men play in today’s crime fiction are also much more complex than they were in the past. For example, Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby and Ruth Rendell’s inspector Wexford are far more than just one-dimensional detectives. They have home lives and families who matter very much to them. What’s interesting about the interactions with those families is that they go far beyond the traditional man-of-the-family dynamics. We can see in them and in other, similar novels the way that crime fiction reflects the evolution in the social roles that both sexes play.

Do you see that same evolution of social roles and the blurring of distinctions between the roles that men and women play? Which are your favorite example novels?


  1. I enjoy the novels where the roles are somewhat reversed. I think it gives a little touch of humor to a murder mystery and keep it more cozy than dark and hard. Women sleuths seem to be able to cross over more easily than men.

  2. Mason - That's a really interesting point. It would be really fascinating to do a study and really find out whether men or women are more likely to take on non-traditional roles in mystery novels. I'll bet you're probably right that it's more likely to be women. You have a point, too, that it can add a touch of humor to have somewhat reversed gender roles if it's done well. Humor can add a new level to a story, too.

  3. When I studied English, I enjoyed reading (about) Victorian literature, and a favourite theme was ´the Victorian bachelor gentleman´.

    So the sex roles of the Sherlock Holmes stories fascinated me so much that I wrote a paper about it, "Sherlock Holmes and Women." If you are interested in reading the gist of it, I have three old posts about Holmes and women on my blog:

  4. Dorte - Wow! Thank you so much for those links! Folks, they are well worth reading : ). It is interesting, isn't it, to think about how women were seen and treated in those days, and how that whole dynamic is portrayed in the Holmes stories :).

  5. Perhaps crime authors are able to place characters outside their 'expected' social roles because these characters are dealing with an extraordinary event. It may be a normal event to host a dinner party (for some people, that is), but it certainly isn't a normal event to have a guest drop dead whilst sipping soup. In the aftermath, those involved can step outside conventional role restrictions to help in the crisis. However, getting these people to step back into the restricted role once the crisis is over can be somewhat problematic.

    Think, for a moment, how women's roles changed during WWII when so many started working outside the home to help with the war effort. Then the war ended. Do you think these women were eager to return to their former restricted roles?

  6. Interesting topic. I hadn't considered this in regard to mysteries before, even though I grew up in the 40s and 50s and therefore my whole life has been about the evolving roles of the two sexes. Also, not having read The Big Kill, I never saw a softer side of Mike Hammer. I must read that one.

  7. Elspeth - Thank you! You always give me such a valuable perspective : ). You are 100% right that a major life-changing event like a death will change people's roles. That, in turn, is bound to be an issue when life settles back to "normal." That's what happens in Agatha Christie's Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide. One of the major characters has just come back to her home villabe from service in WWII, only to find that she's not the same person she was.

    Rural View - Thanks : ). How interesting that you've experienced the same kinds of changes in your own life that we see in the literature, too. You have, I'm sure, a valuable perspective on how authentic those novels are, then. I agree with you that I wouldn't have thought of Hammer as a "softie," but in The Big Kill, he does show that side of himself.

  8. I like reading novels about capable, independent women- not that there aren't plenty of those in real life, of course, but it gives one validation ;-) I quite like reading about tough women, too, but not when the author has basically written a male character but made her female.

    Some years ago I read a series by Linda Barnes featuring a female PI (Carlotta Carlyle?) who was more hard-boiled than your average gal, and of course, Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton) has her "blurring the role models" moments. And I think we've lamented previously about the Anna Lee character's long absence (Liza Cody).

    It's also quite interesting when men have female superiors at work, eg Hannah Scarlett in Martin Edwards's group gets on well with her male subordinates but really does not like her female boss. Roy Grace in Peter James's books gets on quite well with his female boss, compared with the previous male one (I think....may be misremembering). And I always had this sneaking suspicion about Miss Monnypenny and Bond - which made me smile when I read that Judi Dench had taken over the role of M (I had given up watching James Bond movies by then). I wonder if they will now have a male as Miss Monnypenny?

  9. Maxine - I know exactly what you mean! I, too, like the validation that comes from strong women in crime fiction : ). You draw such an interesting distinction, too, between women who are strong - even hardboiled - and female characters who are simply male characters with female names. There is a difference, isn't there? That's what I, personally, find appealing about characters like Kinsey Millhone and Hannah Scarlett. They're strong women, but they are feminine. That's not always easy for an author to manage.

    Thanks for the reminder about Carlotta Carlyle. I have to admit, I haven't read much of that series, but it's not because I didn't like the character. In some ways, Carlotta reminds me of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum. And, like you, I look forward to the return of Anna Lee : ).

    You also raise such an interesting point about how men and women react to the situation of having a female superior. When I read your comment about Martin Edwards' fantastic characters, it put me in mind of another interesting relationship: Ian Rankin's John Rebus and his superior (in some of the novels), Gill Templer. Of course, Rebus has trouble getting on with anyone in authority, but to me, it's interesting that the fact that Templer's a woman doesn't seem to make a difference. He seems to put her more in a category of "people in charge" than "women."

  10. Yes, that's a good point, Margot. If memory serves, I think Gill fades out a bit in later novels, in that she becomes promoted so far that she moves in spheres Rebus does not frequent that often. But I think they had a brief fling once in an earlier book, which he uses to his advantage on more than one occasion when he's about to be disciplined or refused a request of some kind;-)

    I can't recall a woman being in charge in any Italian crime fiction ;-) Although of course Wallendar has a female boss.

  11. Maxine - LOL! I can't think of any female bosses in Italian crime fiction either ; ). How funny! You are right, though, about Gill. She becomes less of a factor as the novels go on. To me, it would be interesting to see what would have happened if they'd spent more time with her as his direct superior. It would have been interesting...