Detective superwomen

I’ve just read for the first time (and enjoyed) one of the Stephanie Plum series of novels by Janet Evanovitch. I was slightly surprised because although I used to be a big fan of crime fiction, I never got into the subgenre of female private eyes (Plum is technically a bounty hunter, not a detective, but the effect is similar). In particular, I never warmed to the template of the tough woman P.I., Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski. I’ve tried reading Paretsky’s novels several times (which my husband likes) and always get turned off.

This distaste has always bugged me, since stories about strong heroines ought to appeal to my feminist tastes. But I know specifically what my trigger is about Warshawski. It’s when she goes jogging or refers to her being good at sports at school that I mentally say ‘Not my sort of woman’ and she loses my sense of identification and solidarity with her.

I’ve been trying to work out the mechanics of this reaction. I’ve read lots of books over the years about tough-guy male protagonists, and the fact that I’m unfit and deeply unsporty doesn’t stop me enjoying the novels. (Some of these, such as the works of Raymond Chandler and Dick Francis, are written in the first person, like Paretsky’s books, so it’s not that stylistic reason why I enjoy reading about Philip Marlowe, not Vic Warshawski). Similarly, I can read books about beautiful, talented actresses/singers etc, without necessarily being turned off, despite being plain myself.

I think it must have something to do both with the pseudo-realistic style of the Paretsky books and the omni-competence of Warshawski. Paretsky shows you the dedication with which a female detective gets physically tough, whereas we are expected to assume that Marlowe naturally remains able to slug a guy, however much liquor and hard living he’s had. Unlike the heroines of more conventional blockbusters, meanwhile, Warshawski is self-reliant AND brave AND smart. Paretsky’s books, I feel, are at some level telling me: ‘You could be like this if you really put enough effort in, but since you don’t you’re just an unsuccessful wimp.’ I feel more comfortable with other, more vulnerable or just slightly less gritty heroines, from Harriet Vane and Amelia Peabody to Stephanie Plum.

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