Crime Beat: An ‘Unsuitable’ Job for a Woman
Dear Mr Chandler, we understand you’re accepting applications from men who walk down mean streets but who are not themselves mean, who are not tarnished or afraid, who are heroes, who are everything. We heard you want applicants to be complete men, common men and yet unusual men and preference would be given to the best men in their world and good enough men for any world. The thing is, you share this world with us. Do we fill in a different form or do we have to join a new club? Love, women detectives xxx
Women detectives are on the rise and are proving very interesting reading. This week I’m going to look at what’s been written about female leads in literary criticism and in the following weeks I’ll explore what’s on offer in terms of women detectives in South African crime fiction at the moment.
Kathleen Gregory Klein’s book, Woman Detective (1988) traces the history of female detectives as well as their literary depiction through history. Klein convincingly argues that, “[m]odelling the female protagonist on a male prototype establishes the conditions for her failure as either an investigator or a woman – or both” (Klein, 162).She goes on to explain that:
“As the protagonist is not simply a man but the glorification of masculine traits, the substitution of a woman with her own feminine virtues or incompletely assumed masculine ones leaves the novel without its centre. But, it is not the decentred genre which is mocked. Rather, it is the deficient hero/ine”.
At some points, I found that Klein’s argument verges on sounding like all women are part of a great conspiracy and while I do think she has some valid points, I prefer Gill Plain’s more explorative way of expressing a similar point in her book, Twentieth Century Crime Fiction: Gender, Sexuality and the Body:
“Whether the detective is male or female, straight of gay, she or he always exists in negotiation with a series of long-established masculine codes. The extent to which the detective conforms or challenges these models is thus essential to understanding of crime fiction and the changing role of the investigator within the genre”. (Plain, 11)
So the kernel of my exploration is going to be: how do these South African women detectives negotiate their position within a predominantly masculine genre? and I’ll look at whether these novels can be seen as feminist or not. To start with, it’s always important to have a definition.
Marty S. Knepper suggests that feminist writing shows:
as a norm and not as freaks, women capable of intelligence, moral responsibility, competence, and independent action, … reveals the economic, social, political and psychological problems women face as part of a patriarchal society; … explores female consciousness and female perceptions of the world; … creates women who have psychological complexity and rejects sexist stereotypes”
To this definition, Kathleen Gregory Klein adds:
“feminism rejects the glorification of violence, the objectification of sex, and the patronization of the oppressed. It values female bonding, awareness of women without continual reference to or affiliation with men, and the self-knowledge which prompts women to independent judgement on both public and personal issues”. (Klein, 201)
Next week I’ll be applying these critical thoughts to South African work. First of all to Margie Orford’s Clare Hart series, then to Jassy Mackenzie’s Jade de Jong series. Finally, I’m going to be looking at the individual local novels emerging with female protagonists such as Angela Makholwa’s Red Ink and H.J Golakai’s The Lazarus Effect.