Monday, August 21, 2006

Dicks for Dames

A recent Christian Science Monitor article picks up on a trend that has me excited, but also a little worried. It notes the remarkable increase in the number of women mystery writers (good thing), but especially focuses on those whose detectives are "not-so-hardboiled" (bad thing). The article's overall message is that women don't want to read that nasty, crude hardboiled stuff (the genius of Hammett, Chandler, and Cain be damned). Instead, most new mystery series written for women are known, for real, as "cozies" or "Malice Domestic" and feature accidental sleuths: hotel owners, cooks, carpenters, knitters, etc., who repeatedly find themselves in situations just begging for their amateur detective skills.

I agree with a former mystery store owner who "criticizes some female authors for their 'trivialization' of women. This includes talking down to them and having them deal with less-serious problems." Sure, some women will enjoy the Jessica Fletcher style mystery, but many more will appreciate a complex, serious mystery -- though perhaps with a little less misogyny than is found in your classic hardboiled detective story.

According to the article, women crime writers are better at developing characters, featuring relationships, and capturing "real life problems" than men writers. Says author Elaine Viets,

The hard-boiled male is often the critical darling. But I believe that the hard-boiled thriller is old-fashioned now. The really difficult books are the books about everyday relationships, about maintaining a job, maintaining a family. It's easy to make a thriller interesting. It's much harder to keep people interested in ordinary life, yet women have that skill to keep people reading for 300 pages. Women don't always write grand books, big thrillers. But they do the Jane Austen kind of book - the book about society.

I'm all for character development, but if that entails touchy-feely details about why a character must visit her great-aunt every Sunday, I'd rather it be left out. And relationships? Please. Just set up the mystery and solve it -- no need for extended forays into the character's lovelife (though an occasional mention is acceptable: Cara Black, Dana Stabenow, and Sara Paretsky, for example, all do it well). Plus, is there really anything worse than comparing contemporary women mystery writers to Jane Austen?

Still, I guess I'm happy that so many women crime writers are doing well. I just wish more of them featured strong, serious women who solve real mysteries on purpose, not because a dead body happens to fall into their cozy domestic laps. I also wish their ranks didn't include those who write "chick-lit mysteries," in which "Prada-type girls who happen to solve mysteries when they're not working in their wonderful Manhattan jobs." Ugh.

[For local T.C. folks, an added bonus: the article includes a few quotes from a co-owner of my favorite mystery shop, Once Upon a Crime.]