The hardboiled genre of crime fiction has traditionally been steeped in a masculine ideology with its rigid loner code, the mythical detective an urban cowboy (ride in, solve the problem, ride out again), tough, cynical, and ever more isolated from his corrupt society. Controversies have arisen however as to whether generic conventions can remain intact when the private investigator is female. Can a female protagonist stay true to those conventions without becoming ‘Philip Marlowe in drag’? There is a volume of fiction featuring women detectives who have attempted to transcend such generic codes and rewrite the archetypal male detective from a female perspective, but do the codes remain?
Contemporary female writers have been preoccupied with gender difference. In deference to the idea that society constructs the identity of people, I started writing my own female protagonist from a position of a belief in similarity, in the idea that men and women want the same things: status, love and freedom, and similarly are capable of the same things: corruption, violence and lust. My appropriation of the archetype aims to uphold generic codes.
Literary critics question whether transposing the gender of the private investigator is possible, if it can be successfully realised while still being true to the constraints of the genre. Bestselling author Sue Grafton, whose series of hardboiled mystery novels feature the female investigator Kinsey Millhone, is considered by some to challenge patriarchy and assert female autonomy. Critics claim however that either Grafton transforms the hardboiled style or genre for her feminist purposes, or that her feminism is negated by her appropriation of generic characteristics inherently marked by the male gender.
Why are the detective’s attributes of independence, assertiveness and problem-solving often seen as exclusively male qualities? I do not believe that the qualities attributed to hard-boiled heroes such as Marlowe are inherently male and think we can all relate to the idea of being someone who is cynical, ever more isolated from a corrupt society with a sure knowledge of the world and a keen moral sense. Chandler’s appeal was claimed to be that he wrote about personal spiritual survival, the crime in his novels a symbol for threats to the conscious control of personal life.
The idea of this being ‘an unsuitable job for a woman’ possibly stemmed from the claim that the hardboiled detective represented a fictional resolution of the challenge to patriarchy posed by the twentieth-century Women’s Movement. When women had shown they could work and support themselves without men, the original hard-boiled tradition gave rise to the femme fatale, a site for the exploration of the angst and fantasies surrounding notions of gender difference. Though she had largely the same traits as those of the loner male detective: cynical, independent, unfettered by domesticity, as a woman, she had to be punished for her divergence from society’s ideological ideal.
From the very beginning of the genre there were often contradictions and double standards at play. When it came to female characters, traits defined as feminine seemed to be bywords for lack. Early women detectives only seemed able to solve crime because of a special warning sense of evil. Visionary psychic ability and clairvoyance generally remained the female detective’s modus operandi and her often derided feminine intuition, never logic, played a large part in her success. In comparison, when male detectives employed intuitive deduction it was described instead as a hunch and their intellect was never called in to question. Apparently, there was no contradiction when Chandler had Philip Marlowe demonstrate vulnerability and complexity, or when his successor Ross Macdonald drew Lew Archer as sympathetic, humane, and compassionate, even though these were deemed somehow to be feminine attributes.
Traditionally women in the protagonist’s role then were seen to reinforce conventional attitudes. They were a long way from being tough and cynical loners. Even today, the idea of a woman being an autonomous loner seems to come largely with negative connotations. While it appears to be acceptable for a man to be alone without the notion that he is somehow incomplete, if a woman is not deemed to be an integral part of society she is seen to be failed in some way. The male detective operates outside society’s conventions because that is what male heroes do, that is not what female heroes should do.
Sara Paretsky’s novels have been hailed as exemplifying some of the important shifts that have occurred in the hardboiled formula. Her protagonist, V.I. Warshawski, often enjoys the help of (mostly female) friends. When it comes to emotional refuge, women often seek to be nurtured by a community of friendships in a way that most men do not and it is this support that has led some critics to claim that Warshawski seems rooted in a modern mythology which has little connection to “accepted” literary detectives such as Dashiell Hammett’s or Raymond Chandler’s.
To construct the character of Angela McGlynn as a cynical loner whose code of behaviour sets her outside the community and the law, I created her as a computer hacker who tracks down and dispenses her own brand of justice to paedophiles. In this way, not only is she set apart as someone with superior powers and insight, a true ‘Great Outsider,’ while online she is in an authentically gender-neutral landscape. She is both inside and outside the law, both criminal and the law. Her role as a private investigator enables her to utilise these skills while affording her a cover for a secondary more covert and antagonistic identity.
Critic Marilyn Stasio records that Paretsky and her contemporaries agree a female detective should not compromise her femininity. But how does one define a valid form of feminine behaviour? It leans toward the idea that we are either exclusively masculine or feminine as defined by gender as opposed to attribute, rather than viewing gender as a construct designed to encourage men to devalue or disallow their capacity for compassion and sensitivity, and to deny in women any femininity should they demonstrate power or assertiveness. If, in defining femininity, women are not supposed to display those attributes traditionally deemed to be male, woman are, by definition, only allowed to be passive and inadequate.
The femme fatale archetype seemed an interesting blueprint to rework for the kind of modern woman I wanted to portray. Angela McGlynn was to be sexual, uninterested in domesticity, with no desire (or ability) to maintain a long-term romantic relationship and to possess a capability for violence however, at the same time, she was to be compassionate, have a keen sense of justice, to be in essence liberated rather than cruel. In effect, I soon realised, she could embody the very same hardboiled characteristics as Marlowe and Spade yet be free from the societal stigmas of a time that sought to restrict women’s alternatives to marriage.
The notion of an inferior physicality, is often a charge levelled by those who maintain the detective role is an unsuitable job for a woman. Military and paramilitary forces employing women in combat roles around the world would surely disagree. Physical strength is taken out of the equation of any fight where superior martial skills are present and a firearm of course, is the ultimate leveller. Critics see the fictional male detective as a superior solitary figure, and although he may require assistants and other forces to supplement his activities, these figures are subordinate in every way. I had to question then my shaping of the story in terms of the additional male manpower that McGlynn employs. Utilising the character of John Knox was useful to explore gender expectations and to create sexual tension. By having him remain invested throughout the story in the idea of saving McGlynn it alludes to the crisis in his masculinity. McGlynn also remains, by virtue of her criminality and what she keeps hidden from him, very much self-contained.
Grafton, Muller and Paretsky’s heroines have been accused by critics of shying away from, and never initiating violence and I sought to change the idea that women are not, or cannot be, inherently violent. Violent women call into question our conceptions of masculinity and femininity, and reveal the limits of, or failures of, ideology.
So can a female protagonist fulfil the loner convention? I believe I have remained true to the imperatives of the genre. McGlynn, as a hacker, is autonomous and outside of societal structures in a neutral non-gendered landscape. The skill affords her a visionary ability based on logic. She is tough and cynically uses patriarchy as a double game to exploit men’s assumptions of what they deem to be her weaknesses. She is a maverick, a vigilante with her own brand of justice. She is an outsider in her criminality and in her emotional landscape. She works covertly outside of the system, consciously in control, while using her credentials within it as cover.
The hardboiled formula detective is increasingly isolated and cynical, forced into compromise, limited in maintaining satisfying love affairs, is psychologically complex, and physical violence is common. Patrolling the new frontier of cyberspace, Angela McGlynn I believe is a twenty-first century urban cowboy. I’ll leave it to readers to decide.