The Big Guns of Detective Fiction

MiMi Yeh

No, they aren’t the flaky femmes out of the Bridget Jones variety, or a romance novel in the guise of the guns and leather of detective fiction; they are three-dimensional human beings with a knack for solving crimes and sometimes committing some of their own. These ladies are characterized by their ability to both act and react; whether it’s their ability to follow a lead, or their innate willingness to kick ass, these newcomers have plenty to counterbalance the Sam Spades and Philip Marlowes who’ve dominated the trade.

One of the pioneers of women with big guns genre, V.I. Warshawksi, the brainchild of author Sara Paretsky. This tough-talking Italian and Polish firecracker grew up on the South Side and has been around since the early 1980s. With over eleven novels under her belt, Paretsky’s Warshawksi has not only seen action but lives her life as a single girl just trying to make a living.

However, a more familiar and contemporary face is that of Kay Scarpetta, spawn of Patricia Cornwell’s imagination. Through near-nuclear disaster, the murder of two lovers, and her own brushes with villains, Cornwell is atypical, as she is first and foremost a medical examiner. Although she has dual degrees in law and medicine, she is not considered a cop, like her friend Marino, but she has the tenacity of one when she gets it in her head to find the cause of death.

Another recent addition to the trade is Anita Blake, though she falls on the fiction-mystery line. Author Laurell K. Hamilton has created a heroine who is both a necromancer, one who raises the dead, and a licensed vampire executioner. With a degree in preternatural biology and a number of guns and knives hidden and strapped to her body, Blake is a product of alternate history, or what the world would have been like if vampires, werewolves, and fairies were real. There’s no shortage of action or metaphysics and magic in any of her novels; although one of her more recent novels, Narcissus in Chains, was disappointing in that it resembled a patchwork of past plots interspersed with graphic sex scenes.

Even Robert B. Parker, creator of Spenser mysteries, has jumped on the bandwagon. Not only have these heroines proven themselves to be popular with a new generation of readers raised in the era of “political correctness,” but they have become profitable as well. Sunny Randall is Parker’s foray into femme detective fiction and, to be blunt, he doesn’t seem capable of pulling it off.

Family Honor, Parker’s first novel featuring Randall, provided high expectations that soon went nowhere with Perish Twice and his latest disappointment–Shrink Wrap. Sunny seems to spend more time depending on her ex-husband Rich’s mob family connections to help her wrap up her cases than she does relying on her own brains and muscle. To give him credit, he has created a strong foundation but hasn’t given her the chance to grow in the way he’s given Spenser, leaving some shadows over Spenser’s life and past, and telling us everything we might want to know about Sunny, instead of leaving us with a few questions. In taking a different approach, Parker is using a formula that he is not only not familiar with, but that he doesn’t seem too comfortable in.

Perhaps Dennis Lehane has captured it best with the Angela Gennaro and Patrick Kenzie series, speaking through the voice of a man but able to understand the woman that he has created as well; although, not well enough to go from her perspective, a limitation he doesn’t try to overcome, to his credit.

The women of mystery novels have achieved and maintained their success partly due to the fact that they are females; the lone ranger, gun-toting vigilantes of crime fiction have given way to the quirky, uncanny, and thoughtful, now that tastes and cultural conventions of a reading public have changed. In other words, the brains have beaten the brawn.