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Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction: Gendering the Canon Author(s): Johanna M.

Smith Reviewed work(s): Source: Pacific Coast Philology, Vol. 26, No. 1/2 (Jul., 1991), pp. 78-84 Published by: Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association Stable URL: . Accessed: 02/12/2011 06:12
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Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction: Gendering the Canon Johanna M. Smith

University of Texas-Arlington There are two possible ways to canonize and teach detective fiction. One would be to insert representatives of this popular-fiction genre into an already established "Literature"canon: teaching Poe and Doyle, say, in a nineteenth-century novel course. Warrantfor such insertions might come from recent critical interest in detective fiction: Umberto Eco writes it, Todorov has written about it, and the 1983 critical anthology ThePoetics of Murder:DetectiveFictionand CriticalTheoryincluded such eminences as Geoffrey Hartmann, Roland Barthes, and F. R. Jameson. But allowing some popular fiction into a Literature canon would maintain the hierarchical division between these categories that assumes Literature's relative autonomy from the realm of ideology and places popular fiction in that grubby purlieu. Instead, we need to "dispute the cartography of the field" (256), as Tony Bennett puts it; rather than making Literature the center with popular fiction the margin and then making select popular-fiction texts into honorary Literature, we need to rethink center and margins. So I might teach detective fiction as a canon in its own right: begin with Poe and Doyle, do the English "genteel" canon and the American hard-boiled canon, and end with contemporary women writers like Sue Grafton and SaraParetsky. Here, however, I risk simply creating an alternative tradition; that is, valorizing a counter-canon of popular fiction would create another version of the Literature/popular fiction dichotomy, a "respectable"detective-fiction canon in which Poe and Doyle, say, make the cut while contemporary writers do not. How can I avoid reproducing this dichotomy if the only alternative to honorary-Literature inclusions is a separate-but-equal detective fiction canon? In answer I want to sketch a potential syllabus, a provisional mini-canon with which to "dispute the cartography" of canonization itself. That is, I will construct an "alternative tradition" canon, but I have use it to address "the diverse ways in which different practices of writing are bound into the struggle for hegemony" (Bennett 263). In other words, Literary and popular "practices of writing" are diverse, but both are nonetheless engaged in the same kind of ideological struggle, a struggle replicated in canon formation. To approach writing-and canons-in this way, reminds us that texts do not have meaning but are sites for the productionof meaning, and that texts do not have value but are assigned value by a valuing subject. So I want a

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syllabus that will help students think about two issues: why readersincluding them-assign different values to different sorts of detective fiction; and how texts figure, over the course of their reception, "not as the sourceof an effect, but as the site on which plural and even contradictory effects may be produced" (Bennett 253). Finally, such a syllabus should suggest how canonization might silence or mystify some of these "plural"effects so as to validate others. The course might begin with the ideologies of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Most of Doyle's women are either victims ("The Adventure of the Speckled Band," "TheAdventure of the Dancing Men") or perfectly competent but apparently unable to stir without Holmes's aid ("The Adventure of the Copper Beeches," 'The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist"). We might speculate how this conventional ideology of femininity could help silence the claims of the late-Victorian New Woman. Analyzing the nitwit policemen of A Study in Scarletand the ineffectual aristocrats of such stories as "The Adventure of the Priory School," we might see social criticism that is not finally subversive: through the figure of Holmes, the omnicompetence of the exceptionsomehow makes up for incompetent state apal-male-individual paratuses. We could then move on to hard-boiled versions of this gender-based ideology of individualism. On one level Dashiell Hammett's novels work against it; his detectives, Sam Spade and the Continental Op, do not reassure the reader that all's well despite police and other forms of corruption, because both are at least marginally corrupt themselves. Yet for many readers of TheMalteseFalcon,the fact that Spade turns Brigid O'Shaughessy in to avoid taking the fall himself is effectively disguised by his vaunted "[w]hen a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it" (568). Raymond Chandler unwittingly put his finger on the ideology behind this reading of Spade's creed when he called TheMalteseFalcon, "the record of a man's devotion to a friend" ("Simple" 188); when represented as masculine friendship, that is, saving one's own skin by disposing of the femmefatale reads as uncorrupted integrity. It is no accident that this reading is Chandler's; in his The Long which I would read as another "record of a man's devotion to Goodbye, a friend," eliminating the femmefataleis the final measure of masculine friendship.' Still, there are desirable women in Chandler's work: his final novel does hint detective Philip Marlowe's romance with the well-heeled Linda Loring, and "The Poodle Springs Story"-left unfinished at his death-does find them married. For the ideology of such


M. Johanna Smith

romance, my syllabus might turn to Robert B. Parker, a contemporary hard-boiled writer whose Poodle Springs incorporates and extends Chandler's manuscript. Parker's novel features a bigamist with a Bad Wife (signaled by her kinky sexuality) and a Good Wife (signaled by her trusting love); Marlowe reveals the Bad Wife to be a murderer and so saves the Good Wife's marriage, but in the process his own marriage to Linda falls apart. The novel ends, however, with Linda coming to Marlowe's apartment for Good Sex; as she says, "We can end the marriage, but we cannot end the love" (188). This Good but Sexy Woman is fully in line with Parker's romantic ideology of gender relations: his own detective Spenser is a wise-cracking yet sensitive Galahad devoted to his significant other, Susan Silverman, who is both a career woman and a sexual dynamo. Susan might seem a far cry from Doyle's victims and Hammett's and Chandler's murderous vixens, yet she is as ideological a representation as they: her professional life as a psychologist is limited to an occasional observation on the level of "sounds like paranoid schiz to me," and she is finally a masculine fantasy of absolute sexual availability. To this point my syllabus would use texts by these four writers as a canon subscribing to a gender-based, individualist ideology in which women are male-defined. The syllabus would now address the question of what happens to this complex of ideologies when women write detective fiction. Often women writers use the form to show women coping with masculine definitions of femininity. Dorothy Sayers's Gaudy Night, Valerie Miner's Murder in the English Department,and many of Amanda Cross's books dramatize the external and internalized problems of women who choose the intellectual or academic life over the domestic. Similarly, Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton rework the traditionally masculine role of hard-boiled detective by putting women in it. Both give their women detectives the kind of emotional baggageconflicted friendships, troubling memories of dead parents-unknown to the hard-boiled, masculine, sturdy-individualist PI. In addition, these women detectives seem free of the sexual difficulties male detectives groan under: they are sexually active, without either the standard masculine fear that sex will distract them from detection or the supposedly feminine need for sexual monogamy.2 But are such alterations of the standard formulae necessarily feminist?3 And do they gender the canon? Not always. In my view, Paretsky's often do not. In Bur Marks,for instance, V. I. Warshawski does face a problem unimaginable for a male detective (whether caring for her aunt should override her work), but she is also capable of simpering that "it just felt good to have... some man ... think... that

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I should be working" (117). In other words, she remains male-defined, sometimes to the point of unintentional parody: when she dumps a man for questioning her professional judgment but later decides to "be friendly" with him so as to "turn [his company] into a major account" (260), she becomes the Woman Careerist from Hell. In contrast, Grafton's novels do seem to me a feminist gendering of the canon, because her detective Kinsey Millhone combines conventional "masculinity" and "femininity" so as to blur the distinction between them. While Millhone's obsessive independence might seem "masculine" or her emotional vulnerability "feminine," in conjunction these conventions lose their gender coding. Gender-blind in a positive way, Grafton's novels de-masculinize hard-boiled detection by representing it simply as a job with Millhone simply the (female) person doing it. A far more radical challenge to the hard-boiled ideology, however, would come from adding lesbian detective fiction to my syllabus. Where other women's detective novels questionmasculine definitions of femininity, these reject such definitions; in Sarah Dreher's Stoner McTavish series, for instance, women don't agonize over what men think about their work or their sexuality. In addition, lesbian writers use the crime-story form to address specifically lesbian issues: in Barbara Wilson's The Dog CollarMurders,the problem is whether lesbian sado/masochism enacts a feminine sexuality or simply internalizes men's hatred; Mary Wings's She CameToo Lateaddresses the question of whether biogenetics is an opportunity for lesbian motherhood or yet another instance of masculinist power over women's bodies. Most importantly, such issues are not amenable to individual solutions; in fact, the exceptional individual's Holmesian hubris is often a sign of villainy. In such ways, lesbian detective fiction tends to subvert a hard-boiled individualist ideology. This fiction is not widely known. While discussing this paper with many women who read and/or teach women's detective fiction, for instance, I found myself the only hetero aware of these writers, and I knew of them only through a lesbian friend. Although there are dozens of lesbian detective novels, they form a counter-canon of their own;4 in other words, they have not entered what we might call the traditional counter-canon of detective fiction. Of the several possible explanations for this canonical marginalization, one has to do with economics, and here we need to look at publishers' role in the formation of the hardboiled canon. As Barbara Herrnstein Smith reminds us, an entity's value is produced in part by "the dynamics of an economic system" (16), which


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includes not only the valuing subject's personal economy of desires but also the market economy servicing these desires. Now, the value assigned a new detective novel depends on the reader's personal economy (what kind of mystery she or he prefers) and on the market economy (how much she or he can or wants to spend). For the publisher, these factors in turn depend on a canon; that is, a new detective novel is marketed for an existing category with existing potential purchasers. Robert B. Parker's career is an instructive instance of such canon formation. He himself constructed a canon in the subtitle of his 1971 PhD thesis, "A Study of the Private Eye in the Novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald" (quoted in Glover 83); the CincinnatiPost blurb on his 1980 novel Looking RachelWallacecalled for Spenser "the legitimate heir to the Hammett-Chandler-Macdonald tradition"; and the dust jacket for 1989's Poodle Springs pictures both Parker and Chandler. What we have here is the Hammett-ChandlerMacdonald-and-now-Parker canon emerging as a cottage industry for Parker and his publishers. Such an economic tradition or canon has been particularly important for women writers of detective fiction, whose novels tend to have a shorter shelf-life than men's.5 In the late 1970s author Linda Barnes was told that readers accustomed to hard-boiled male detectives would not buy a woman PI "who was not a Miss Marple type" (Behren El). In 1986, however, her first hard-boiled story featuring Carlotta Carlyle "took off," in part because Paretsky's and Grafton's first novels-both published in 1982-had prepared the way. Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone series is currently receiving a comparable, if retroactive, economic canonization. Begun in 1977, the series is being re-released this year (1990) in a standard format. The reissue of the first novel touts it as "the first Sharon McCone mystery"-information which, like the standard design, lures the first-time consumer to the rest of the series. On the cover, Sue Grafton calls Muller "the founding 'mother' of the contemporary female hard-boiled private eye"; this blurb locates Muller's series in a tradition and thus reassures the consumer that it is worth buying. In contrast, it is a safe bet that few publishers see the lesbian market as a goldmine. Many of these novels are published by alternative presses like Seal, and they are pricey (generally $8.95 per paperback). B. Dalton or the Mystery Guild will sell you Grafton, Paretsky, and Muller but not Dreher, Wilson, or Wings; the catalogue compiled by the writers organization called Sisters in Crime includes Dreher, Wilson, and Wings but few other lesbian writers.

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Part of the reason for this economic marginalization is the novels' lesbian sexuality. While Wilson's fiction generally remains decorously silent on this point, Dreher's and Wings's novels have a degree of explicitness that would probably make many hetero readers uncomfortable. And this explicit sexuality also contributes, I think, to the academic marginalization of these novels. In the first place, hetero students would tend to feel the same kind of discomfort with lesbian sexuality as other readers. For the hetero feminist professor, an additional problem is that many students already tend to equate feminism with lesbianism and to reject both as equally deviant; to confront this dual rejection-by discussing the ideology of compulsory heterosexuality in hard-boiled detective fiction, for instance-is a dauntingly difficult task. But these problems seem to me all the more reason to include lesbian detective novels in my syllabus. This fiction can help us interrogate the construction of the standard hard-boiled canon and its ideologies. How does that canon reflect and maintain suspicions of feminists and lesbians as non-male-defined women? suspicions of feminist and lesbian solidarity as challenges to an individualist ideology? To ask these questions by teaching lesbian detective fiction would gender the canon indeed. Notes
1. For an analysis of such friendship as homosocal desire, see my "Raymond Chandlerand the Business of Literature," TexasStudiesin Literature Language, and 31.4 (Winter1989):592-610. 2. It is interesting to note that this need appears in Robert Parker'sSpenser, where it is meant as a markerthat he is sensitive to women. 3. See Kaplanfor a discussion of this point in several writers I have not included here. 4. Time constraintsmean that I cannot here pursue an issue pertinentto this (or that any) counter-tradition, is, whether a separatistcanon which might be marginalized is nonethelesspreferableto an inclusive canonwhich might lead to co-optation. 5. SaraParetskymake this comment as a respondent to a 1990MLAconvention panel, "H is for Hero(ine):The New Women Detectives."


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Works Cited
Bennett, Tony. "Marxism and Popular Fiction." Popular Fictions: Essays in Literature History. Ed. Peter Humm, Paul Stigant, and Peter Widdowand son. London: Methuen, 1986.237-65 Chandler, Raymond. "The Simple Art of Murder." The SimpleArt of Murder, 3rd ed. New York:Pocket, 1964. Glover, David. 'The stuff that dreams are made of: masculinity, femininity and the thriller."Gender,GenreandNarrativePleasure.Ed. Derek Longhurst. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989, 67-83. Hammett, Dashiell. TheMalteseFalcon.TheFourGreatNovels.London: Picador, 1982, 375-571. Kaplan, Cora. "An unsuitable genre for a feminist?" Women'sReview 8 (une 1986): 18-19. Mehren, Elizabeth. 'Their MO: Follow That Woman." TheLos Angeles Times. 13 Sept. 1990, Sec. E, p. 1 col. 2 and p. 5 col. 1. Paretsky, Sara. BurnMarks.New York: Delacorte, 1990. Parker, Robert B. PoodleSprings. New York: Putnam, 1989. Smith, BarbaraHerrnstein. "Contingencies of Value." Canons.Ed. Robert von Hallberg. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984,5-40.