The Gender Agenda

Is there a fictional private eye who is treated to a harder time than V. I. Warshawski? The witnesses she interviews are mostly hostile to the point of aggression, her life is constantly in danger, she’s been tortured and left for dead, blown up, set fire to, mugged, her apartments and office repeatedly ransacked, the people she loves put in mortal danger (and killed off sometimes), and for crying out loud, even her clients seem to detest her. Most books contain one serious hospitalisation, which makes me wonder whether the most implausible part of this series is that a self-employed detective would be able to afford medical insurance?

The real question that intrigued me, reading Hardball, one of the latest novels, is how this climate of hatred fits in with V. I.’s self-proclaimed feminism. I first read a Sara Paretsky novel when I was working at the bookstore in my early twenties and I remember being glued to it. This was hardboiled crime brought up to date, with a tough-talking, fearless woman carrying the narrative. This was the early nineties and sisters had been doing it for themselves for a while now; we were used to the likes of Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter and Emma Tennant doing their revisionist thing. Paretsky took the fascination with unusual female protagonists to a new level by creating a very realistic, very gritty setting for the kind of woman who seemed very real at the time, determined and courageous, principled, fierce, but worried too, about the way her independence seemed to come at the cost of orthodox female rewards – love, security, family. She jumped off the page at you, did V. I., partly because she was so bold and uncompromising, and partly because she refused ever to lower her voice.

And this was always somewhat problematic about the Warshawski novels; V. I. comes across so often as unlikeable. Strident is not the word. She is opinionated and stubborn, self-righteous and sometimes self-pitying, judgemental, unkind and reckless. She causes as much hostility as she naturally encounters because her only method of questioning is to needle and attack her suspects – and that’s before her hot temper gets the better of her. She is so bound up in her own concerns that she is entirely unable to summon the least empathy for others. In short, she is a bit of a nightmare.

Back in the 80s and early 90s, this could have been seen as a feminist act in itself; the celebration of a woman who refused to be sweet, charming and compliant. When women stepped into male roles it was understood back then that they needed to play the game on male terms. If V. I. had wheedled and seduced her way around her investigations she would soon have been drummed out of the sisterhood. Yet reading this latest novel in the new millennium, I couldn’t help but wonder: did V. I. need to be engulfed in violence, trauma and tragedy to assure the reader felt sympathy for her despite her flaws, or was that same violence and its consequences a kind of unconscious halo of anxiety around the woman who refuses to play nice?

Sara Paretsky is one of the few authors I read who consistently manages to make me feel completely engaged in a story whose main character teeters on the knife edge of infuriating. I do not admire V. I.’s methods one little bit, which makes me also wonder whether, when talking about the sympathy we have for characters, it is not so much their intrinsic likeability that counts as their ability to succeed in the life they are given. Highsmith’s Ripley, for instance, is detestable, and yet you read on with grudging admiration for the way he extricates himself from difficulty. With V. I. you have to spend a lot of time watching her dig holes for herself, and in Hardball there was many an occasion when I longed for her to find better strategies. What’s intriguing about Hardball is the fact that V. I. herself is forced to confront the damage her brittle reactions can cause and to wonder whether she can change. Is this then a reflection of a shift in current feminist ideology, one in which women get to use their femininity without being deemed manipulative or shameful? Could V. I. still call herself a feminist today if she became softer, gentler, more understanding? What behaviour must a woman adopt these days if she wishes to hang onto her membership card for the sisterhood?

For me, the real feminist agenda of the Warshawski novels arises from the kind of cases that V. I. tackles. The stories take her into the upper echelons of corporate and political affairs, worlds almost synonymous with crime and corruption in Chicago it seems. But essentially, they are worlds that have been dominated by patriarchal power and which continue, more or less, to be so today. In these spaces, V. I. and her finger-pointing, cage-rattling questions come across as an outrage against authority, and it’s no wonder she is always ending up in such danger. My favourite definition of feminism is that it concerns itself with relations to power, and V.I.’s demands for truth, fair play and integrity never fail to strike a formidable blow for justice – between those who abuse their access to power and those who suffer for it.

Paretsky’s ability to create stories with fierce political resonance is simply outstanding. Hardball, which takes V.I. back to an old cold case, the death of a civil rights activist during the riots of the late sixties, is no exception. So much crime fiction seems to be about nothing of consequence that this series comes as a refreshing relief. The ending was devastating in a gratifying way – yes, here was something that men would kill for. V. I.’s ferociousness ultimately seemed worthwhile.

But when it was all over, what was her reward? Well, she got the guy, the only decent man to bob his head up every now and then across 400 pages, and a balm to her fears that she is unloveable. And I’m really curious to know: is this a feminist act?


12 thoughts on “The Gender Agenda

  1. Most definitely a feminist act from your description. We don’t have to like all feminist acts. Question is whether V.I. is being true to herself and using all her resources to break down those doors and solve her cases. Seems she is. Maybe she needs an attitude adjustment but who doesn’t? :).

  2. I used to love Paretsky, too, but have not read her recently. I thought Kathleen Turner was perfect casting for her in the movie. I’m not sure what you are asking. I agree that in the past to be feminist you had to act like a disagreeable male. But that time is long gone. Crime fiction in general emphasizes the toll the work takes on the personal lives of both men and women. I don’t get the impression that women have the monopoly on that, even feminist ones. The large number of injuries V.I. suffers, though, makes me wonder if the author is using the Damsel in Distress card to enhance sympathy for a character who might otherwise seem unredeemably difficult. Sara Paretsky likely has her own ambivalences about the definitions of feminism. Or it’s just her way of enhancing conflict and contradiction in fiction to make it more compelling.

  3. My mom loves these books but I’ve not read any of them. She is no help for your discussion though because she just reads for plot and doesn’t generally ponder the deeper implications. Still, they are really popular books so V.I. must have something likeable going for her. Maybe she is an opportunity for women who don’t feel brave or tough or empowered in their personal lives to get a taste of what that means and what it might look like? In which case it would be feminist, yes?

  4. I read almost all the V.I Warsarski novels back in the 80s and 90s. I don’t recall thinking of V.I. as a feminist icon at the time. I do remember liking the fact that she was real, warts and all, and that as a character, she grew and evolved over the course of the series. Is Miss Marple a feminist icon? She never married nor had children either. I imagine there are plenty of female accountants, doctors, lawyers, and teachers etc. in the world who have also not “achieved” love, security and family for various reasons, their career being possibly one, but not necessarily the only reason. I agree with querulous squirrel: detectives of the hard boiled sort, male or female, don’t solve cases unless they ruffle a few feathers; getting possibly killed or maimed as a result is part of the job. I wonder if this is more a case of you, the reader, having changed in the intervening years. While the fictional V.I. wonders what she might be missing, you know exactly what that is, since you have it.

  5. Interesting, especially as a feminist crime writer also trying to investigate relations of power. I don’t know whether I should be reading Paretsky to see how she does it or if I’m better off carving my own path.

  6. Fascinating analysis. I wanted to read Paretsky back in the day because a hardboiled female PI was new territory, but I don’t read much hardboiled of any kind. I think I read one (to go along with the one I read with a male PI). But I loved reading your thoughts on it.

  7. I’ve not yet read Sara Paretsky, though I think I need to soon. It sounds like the book raises all sorts of intriguing questions. Interesting that the author, even with a job well done otherwise, had to pair V.I. off with someone at the end. WAS that the real reward?

  8. “So much crime fiction seems to be about nothing of consequence” – this strikes me as very true indeed.
    I never read Sara Paretsky or just some short stories I think. It does sound intersting. I’m curious to find out whether I would like V.I.
    Feminism is certinaly most successful when it uncovers power relations.
    What I didn’t get, is this an older novel? Is she still writing the series?

  9. Fascinating post and questions, Litlove! I’m in a hard-boiled phase right now (Kerr, Chandler, Connelly…), so your post resonates quite a bit, although I’m sorry to disagree with you. What you see in Warshawski as feminist is to me a convention of the genre, not a consequence of the gender. Male PI are also about getting justice at all cost (medical costs included), and they don’t strike me as particularly likeable.
    Anyway, if you’re interested in the feminist angle to the noir genre, you may be interested in a short story collection edited by Paretsky herself (reviewed here:
    This summer I discovered Liza Cody and her heroin Anna Lee. It’s considered a proto-feminist hard-boiled PI (early 1980s), you may find it a good point of comparison with Warshawski

  10. opinionated and stubborn, self-righteous and sometimes self-pitying, judgemental, unkind and reckless.

    I would agree with some others that this is a great description of most male hard-boiled noir detectives (with the occasional substitution of “self-destructive” for “self-righteous”). But that does bring up such interesting questions when the same thing is transposed into a different gender—is a change of protagonist gender all it takes to make something “feminist”? Or do the dynamics of the genre itself prove resistant (or conducive) to that label? I haven’t read any of Peretsky’s books, but maybe some aspects of the hardboiled noir genre are an uneasy fit with feminism no matter what?

    One of the more effective uses/skewings of the hard-boiled tropes you’re talking about, that I’ve encountered, are Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins mysteries, where the dynamics of racism in 1950’s LA explain WHY the Easy/Mouse duo display so many of these unpleasant, pushy, or “overly” hostile traits—and also why there can be these two amateur “detectives” solving a slew of cases. (Basically, because the LAPD can’t be bothered about injustice and crime taking place within the African-American community.) In Mosley’s case, he makes so many of the standard tropes fit in thought-provoking ways, so that the books are “about” more than your average crime novels, in the same way you’re describing.

  11. Eoin – thank you! It’s lovely to have you drop by.

    Kinna – yes, I quite agree, we don’t have to like or appreciate all a person does. It used to be that feminism in the 80s was fighting off prescriptive roles for women that were no less straitjacketed than the ones they had before – strong, bold, determined, as opposed to nurturing, gentle, loving. Perhaps we’ve finally reached a place where people accept people more at they are, regardless of gender? It would be good if it were so.

    Squirrel – all I was really asking was how much times have changed. It’s twenty years or so since I last read a Paretsky novel and in the meantime there’s been a big feminist backlash, and then, just recently, a new wave of books about gender issues. I just wondered what the thinking was now around feminism – is there a way women need to behave, how do we judge the way they handle relationships, that sort of thing. Which I think you answered in the end in any case! I get the feelling that Paretsky has always been quite clear about what feminism means to her, and probably V.I’s injuries are just in the name of exciting reading. But it’s intriguing to play around with other interpretations too.

    Stefanie – I’m right behind empowered, and I do think that these novels are feminist in the way they show a woman holding her own ably in a man’s world (which was where Paretsky started out with the feminist thing, I feel sure). I just wish that V. I. liked herself more than she does – she treads an uncomfortable borderline between self-harm and self-sacrifice, in this book sneaking out from the hospital with serious burns, barely able to walk, in order to check out a crime scene. She feels guilty a lot, too, as if she’s responsible for everything that happens, which she is not. These are old-fashioned and damaging feminine attitudes, or at least, I thought they were… You can see why it intrigued me!

    Ruthiella – I wouldn’t necessarily read this through a feminist prism, except that Warshawski talks about her feminist principles and is careful to call herself a feminist. Isn’t it funny how differently novels strike different people. That’s all I knew about the books when I first began reading them – that they had this declared feminist perspective. But I like the conclusion you come to – it may well be that I have a very different attitude because of my different life experiences, and I agree that this is a very good warts and all characterisation.

    Charlotte – it’s always difficult to know whether to read books that do similar things to the things one would like to do oneself. But these are fantastic crime novels, brilliantly written and brilliantly plotted. I don’t know if that helps or not!

    Lilian – back in my 20s, I was very keen on feminist literature and there was quite a lot of it coming out then. I’d read a lot of theory and it was intriguing to see how it panned out. I think you’d like the social issues raised in these novels, but I know you’re not keen on the scary stuff, which is fair enough!

    Danielle – well now that was exactly what I thought. The point where a book finally ends is really resonant. Are we supposed to think a happy ending only ever includes a man? I sort of thought we had got past thinking that was necessary. Wouldn’t V.I. do as well to simply enjoy the satisfaction of doing her job well? But these questions aside, I’d encourage you to read Paretsky’s novels. They are fabulous crime fiction.

    Caroline – Paretsky is still writing the series, but she has slowed up considerably. I think there was quite a break between the rush of novels in the 80s and then the handful that have been published this decade. No drop in quality, though. I think she is an excellent writer and the social political issues raised are always really well done. She’s worth a try.

    Smithereens – ah, I don’t disagree but I read it the other way round. Yes, this is a convention of hardboiled crime, but for a woman to step into those shoes and to be as tough and crazy as the men was a political statement back in the 80s. Now there are a lot of female P.I.s out there, but Paretsky was doing a new thing back then and she did it in a consciously feminist way. V.I. identifies herself as a feminist and is often forced to consider her principles over the course of a case. What I’m interested in is how that old-style feminism – a woman doing a man’s job – looks like now in an age when it IS normal. And given there’s been a lot of gender books out lately, I was wondering what has changed about feminism. I knew for sure what it meant in the 80s but I’m out of touch nowadays! Thank you so much for the link and the recommendation – I will follow both up!

    Emily – exactly the lines I was thinking along! I’ve been listening to the Raymond Chandler adaptations on BBC radio 4 lately, and I notice how little guilt Marlowe feels, how unemotionally he goes about his business. V.I. isn’t like that – she’s tough and aggressive, but drowning in guilt and the desire to self-punish. Plus, relationshps are the last thing on the hardboiled detective’s mind, whereas V.I. is enmeshed in relationship demands – some lovers, some family. She’s at the centre of a demanding network of people, unlike the hardboiled private eye who is always a loner. Mind you, the social issues that dominate hardboiled work very well in the feminist agenda, which is often akin to other forms of marginalisation through race and poverty, say. I can see that it’s the social issues again which stand out in the Easy Rawlins series. I’ve read the first of those – Devil in a Blue Dress – and I enjoyed it, or at least, I thought it was a very clever variation on the theme.

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