PRINT January 1990


the New Hard-Boiled Woman

RECENTLY I TOOK A GROUP of 16 college students, half women and half men, to Paris for the summer, to teach a course on French literature of the modern city. I wanted my students to become flâneurs in the tradition of Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin. “Wander through the city,” I said. “Read your novel in the neighborhood where it was set, keep notes on the novel and on the place where you read it. Have adventures.”

I had forgotten one thing: wandering is not an equal-opportunity activity. In my group, the women who wandered were constantly hassled, provoked, even accosted. We began practicing what they should say back, how to be disinterested and angry at the same time—how to give lip, in other words.

We should have been reading Sara Paretsky.

The right of women to wander through the city, which Paretsky claims for her hard-boiled detective, V.I. Warshawski, was the subject of musings by Simone de Beauvoir in her 1949 classic The Second Sex that are regrettably still pertinent today. Girls are kept at home, “little mothers,” she observes, while their brothers are free to wander the city. It was rare in 1949 to see women together, hiking, biking, or playing pool. “I know young girls who, without being at all timid, find no enjoyment in taking walks alone in Paris because . . . they must be always on the alert, which spoils their pleasure,” claimed Beauvoir, in what one imagines is an autobiographical admission.

Can a woman wander through a city, even in fiction? The modern genre to look at for an answer to this question is the detective novel. The detective novel, in the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, is an urban form; its hero, a knower and lover of the great modern cities. The detective novel has always been a male genre, not just because women have not been employed as detectives or policemen but because women have been improbable as wanderers. In his Poélique de la ville, 1971, French esthetician Pierre Sansot defines the encounter with the prostitute as one of the key experiences of the city: “The possession of and the meeting with the prostitute become those of a city undressing itself.” How can a woman take possession of the city when she is—in poetics as in the annoying encounters of everyday life—the symbol that the universal male must disrobe in his quest for knowledge?

Back to the detective novel. But after all, someone might counter, the mystery genre—at least in its English manifestations—is highly feminine. How does a woman become a spy, an intelligence gatherer in this other tradition? She can set up a private, social space for the exchange of intelligence; she can spy as a hostess in the salon or as a mistress in the bedroom. Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple makes it as a detective by playing the traditional female role, the small town busybody. Or a woman can play detective with an escort through the urban spaces: Harriet Vane has Wimsey, Mrs. North has Mr. North (she tends to wander off on her own and get into scrapes, but he comes to the rescue).

In 1950—a year after the publication of Beauvoir’s The Second Sex—Chandler published an important essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” in which he denounced the British, feminine current in mystery writing. Hammett, he claimed, had purged the genre, made it American by making it “hard-boiled.” Hard-boiled meant real, male, and populist: the lonely tough American detective has never seen the insides of a parlor. “Hammett,” wrote Chandler, “took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley; it doesn’t have to stay there forever, but it looked like a good idea to get as far as possible from Emily Post’s idea of how a well-bred debutante gnaws a chicken wing.” Like the western, the American hard-boiled detective novel was inspired, from its debut, by scorn for women mixed up with class hatred.

Enter Paretsky’s female, and feminist, hard-boiled detective, V.I. “Vic” Warshawski. Warshawski is part Cagney part Lacey, ex-lawyer, daughter of a half-Jewish Italian opera-singer mother and a Polish policeman father, both dead. Her class origin is lower middle; her native turf, the south side of Chicago where she learned how to fight. (“Warshawski” is actually the name of a giant auto parts dealer in that part of town.)

Whenever she glosses the hard-boiled tradition she’s working in, Warshawski marks her difference, sometimes with doubt, sometimes with irony: “Of course, a hard-boiled detective is never scared. So what I was feeling couldn’t be fear” (Killing Orders, 1985); or, in Bitter Medicine, 1987, “I responded with a Sam Spade toughness I was far from feeling.” The tough-guy cliché is for reassurance and survival—like a ritual—but it isn’t the whole truth.

Doubt translates well in the hard-boiled universe, so what’s different here? Unlike a Spade or a Marlowe, Warshawski is doubting but never cynical, and this is because she is guided by a clear, uncompromising moral and political agenda. Warshawski grapples with the major political issues of feminism, and she puts those issues to work in her stories, in situations, and in dialogues. For instance, her spar with a priest in Killing Orders on the subject of abortion, the Catholic church, and tax exemption is one of the great working-woman repartees in contemporary fiction.

I was moved by Paretsky’s autobiographical essay in a newly published collection, Family Portraits: Remembrances by Twenty Distinguished Writers, 1989. The creator of V.I. Warshawski was, in her own childhood, confined to the house, where she was saddled with the care of a younger sibling. Her yen for story telling came from staring at cabbage-rose wallpaper and imagining a quick death for her bickering parents. She will never, she claims, enjoy that grand sense of a literary calling that writers like Bellow and Sartre describe: “I wrote from an early age,” she explains, “but I knew that, as with all fields, literature belonged to men.” Her autobiographical voice, despairing, insecure, even ashamed, is a fascinating counterpoint to the fighter in the detective novels. The genre Paretsky has chosen, the most male of all the American fiction genres, is clearly her best revenge against her childhood feelings of exclusion. Though there is much more to Paretsky than revenge.

A woman who can express anger, who takes responsibility for her actions, and feels the consequences—but not a “superwoman”—V.I. Warshawski is a vital new addition to feminist fiction. She transcends pulp and easy macho, while living right in the epicenter of macho fantasies, the world of the private dick. There is so much that is new, important, and brave in these books: their multigenerational perspective, for one. Family bonds not defined by blood relations. And something so simple, it’s hard to describe—simple autonomy. Warshawski sitting down at a meal, alone. Checking into a motel, alone. Explaining to the guy she’s sleeping with at the moment that she can’t deal with anyone keeping tabs on her. Even the clothes she wears and food she eats are always chosen, never dictated by convention (”After all, once you’re dead, you’ve got all eternity in front of you to diet in," she says in Bitter Medicine). And the most satisfying unreality effect of all is this one: it’s when she’s being beaten up by thugs that her language gets the toughest and most uncompromising.

Autonomy, and yet Warshawski is not a loner. Her deepest emotional relationship is with Dr. Lotty Herschel, a Jewish Austrian refugee from Nazism who represents historical wisdom, suffering, love, and commitment. Lotty Herschel and Warshawski once worked in an abortion underground. In the present time of the novels, Lotty runs a medical clinic (bombed by antiabortionists in Bitter Medicine). Their relationship is linked to a shared feminist struggle and to a common historical understanding. Marlowe and Sam Spade don’t have this kind of moral center in their universe.

Warshawski is a materialist. Hospital fraud, insurance fraud, overbilling: the crimes she investigates are crimes of capitalism, of white-collar men who use Mafia thugs to do their dirty work. The city spaces she travels through are defined by their economies: the Great Lakes ports in Deadlock, 1984; the chemical wastelands in Blood Shot, 1988; the Catholic charity circuit in Killing Orders. But the other materialism in these books is the materialism of the emotions, the place in language where the body meets the mind and where ordinary psychic pain is more horrible than actual physical violence: “I felt a sharp pain across my diaphragm, as though someone hod inserted a little needle behind it which jabbed me every time I breathed. That’s what people mean when they say their hearts ache. They really mean their diaphragms. My face felt wet. I passed a hand across my eyes, expecting to find blood. I was crying” (Deadlock). I quote this sentence because it is as fine an example of a cliché deconstructed, and of writing attuned to the body, as many a page of Jacques Derrida or Hélène Cixous.

Paretsky’s symbolism is always finely grained. Warshawski has three things left from her mother: diamond-drop earrings, an Olivetti typewriter, and Venetian goblets. I think of the Venetian goblets as Paretsky’s writerly code for where Chandler said that murder used to be stashed, until Hammett dropped it in the alley. V.I. Warshawski uses the goblets to entertain men in her apartment. They stand for sensuality, for the comforts lost in the fight, and for her mother’s voice, telling her to slow down and take it easy. The world is not all corrupt; nor is all corruption ever redeemed. It’s just that there is resistance here. Paretsky is writing novels where a woman claims her right to the city, her right to her body, her right to feel. Fiction isn’t all that’s at stake.

Alice Yaeger Kaplan is a Mellon Fellow at the National Humanities Center and teaches in Romance Studies and Literature at Duke University. She is the author of Reproductions of Banality, 1986.