The Detective as Speech by Sara Paretsky

An early letter I received after publishing my first book, Indemnity Only, came from a woman who wanted to know why V. I. Warshawski was allowed to “talk back” to men without being punished. The writer wasn’t seeking help in learning to talk back herself; she was criticizing V. I. for behaving in a way that was neither right nor natural.

The letter, written long before email, didn’t include a return address, so I couldn’t write to see whether the woman might need or want help. The letter was profoundly disturbing, since it seemed to scream in all caps that the writer had been subject to such severe abuse that she thought submission was women’s only appropriate behavior.

  1. I.’s lippiness is in the long-established tradition of sardonic detectives. I took my cue from Carroll John Daly’s Race Williams, the first of the hard-boiled detectives, and from Philip Marlowe. V. I. talked back because all good PI’s do. I wasn’t thinking about speech when I started writing, but about sex: I was reacting to crime novels where women’s sexual behavior almost inevitably determined whether the writer viewed them as villain, victim, or (passive) heroine.

My detective had a long gestation, dating back to my first reading Raymond Chandler, when I was twenty-three. In all but one of his novels, the villains are women who use their bodies in an effort to get good boys to do bad things. I was particularly strucky by the gymnastics that Carmen Sternwood performs in The Big Sleep. When she first encounters Marlowe, in the entrance to her father’s mansion,

[Carmen] turned her body slowly and lithely, without lifting her feet. Her hands dropped limp at her sides. She tilted herself towards me on her toes. She fell straight back into my arms. I had to catch her or let her crack her head on the tessellated floor. I caught her under her arms and she went rubber-legged on me instantly. I had to hold her close to hold her up. When her head was against my chest she screwed it around and giggled at me.

Reading Chandler changed the lens through which I saw a lot of western literature (“The woman that thou gavest to me made me do it,” Adam whines to God in the garden of Eden). In noir fiction, women with a sex life were particularly wicked, but in the more reserved English novels of the so-called Golden Age of crime fiction, a woman who was divorced or widowed was an unreliable narrator. Such a woman was seldom the main villain, but the fact that she had had a sex life allied her with villains. Dorothy Sayers’ Harriet Vane was a kind of exception, but only because she remained rigidly chaste after her unfortunate lover’s murder.

For eight years after meeting Carmen Sternwood, I imagined writing a private eye novel with a woman hero. Every now and then I’d write a page or two about a woman named Minerva Daniels, as wooden and derivative a character as you could ever hope to meet. She was, in essence, Philip Marlowe in drag. She drank cheap bar whisky, smoked, and started her detecting life when a slim-hipped, broad-shouldered man with an assumed name came into her office. In my imagination, he was going to look like the angel in the house, but turn out to be the devil.

Most chaste fictional women were benign or the object of a hero’s love, but rarely could a virginal woman solve problems on her own (Margery Allingham’s Amanda Fitton and Nicholas Blake’s Georgia Strangeways were notable exceptions).

Even though I’d been writing fiction, albeit privately, most of my life, I had no confidence I could write in a public voice. I was further hampered by Minerva’s cardboard persona, although I only realized that in retrospect.

It wasn’t until I was working as a marketing manager for a multi-national insurance company that V. I. ’s voice came to me. I was part of the first wave of women to enter the professions and management in large numbers. We were the beneficiaries of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was meant to outlaw discrimination based on race or sex in education and the workplace. It took fifteen years of litigation, of lonely battles and a lot of heroism by women who lost their jobs in the struggle, before we got access to professional schools, as well as to job paths out of various pink-collar ghettos (women were deemed physically strong enough to carry hundred-pound bags of laundry in hotels, but not strong enough to work construction, for instance.)

In the late 1970’s, when I left my last clerical job and entered management, I and my female peers readily found men who were willing to mentor us and support us. WE also encountered those who resented our presence in their preserves and tried to bully us out of the way. It was while working for one of those bullies that my detective came to me.

I can still remember the day, October, dreary as only Chicago can be when the leaves have fallen from the trees, looking down at Grant Park while enduring a particularly stressful meeting. I was wishing I had the guts to say what was in the balloon over my head, instead of paying lip-service to my boss, and in the middle of that wish, V. I. appeared—almost as if my fairy godmother had heard me and waved a wand.

Instead of Philip Marlowe in drag, my detective should be a woman like me and my friends: doing a job that hadn’t existed for women when we were growing up and facing the harassment that we all faced. Maybe we were too afraid to speak up, to fight back, but my detective didn’t care if people called her strident, she didn’t worry about being fired, she wasn’t afraid to take chances.

In the middle of the meeting, I began imagining her. Big enough physically to take on punks. The product of Chicago’s rough steel-mill neighborhood, where girls grew up knowing how to defend themselves on the streets. Her father a cop, so that she had a natural entree into the police world. Her mother a refugee from Mussolini’s Italy, as a way for me to explore my own family’s European history.

Later that fall, I began writing Indemnity Only. The road to publication wasn’t quick—once I’d finished the book and found an agent, thanks to Stuart Kaminsky—another man who was a steadfast mentor to women—it was hard to persuade New York publishers to take a chance on V. I. A private eye was supposed to be a man, and was supposed to operate out of New York or California. (One editor explained that a book set in Chicago had regional interest only and not enough people read in the Midwest to make it worthwhile to publish a book set here.)

Indemnity Only was published in 1982, at a time when second-wave feminism was riding high. We’d conquered some big mountains in the United States: legalized abortion and birth control; access to loans in our own names; access to professional schools; pay equity for public-sector custodians; new, if limited, opportunities in the skilled trades.

1982 also marked the year that women in Chicago were first allowed to take the detective exam and serve with the regular police force, instead of as an auxiliary working with juveniles and at the women’s detention centers.

We women writers saw the world opening before us: Marcia Muller’s 1977 Edwin of the Iron Shoes, Liza Cody’s 1980 Bad Company, and Grafton’s and my 1982 debuts, opened a floodgate of women writing about believable strong women. By 1995, we had women forensic scientists, process servers, cops, and in every other profession that keeps the mean streets a little more civil.

However, the pushback against second-wave feminism had begun before I even started my first novel. In the United States, this took the form of an aggressive assault on women’s reproductive health in the social-political arena, and the use of rape or the threat of rape as a silencing tactic in fiction and film.

Whereas in the heyday of noir, a vamp was a villain, today the female presence in thrillers and crime fiction is often the victim of horrific assault. The change began at first as a threat, but escalated rapidly into graphic rape, dismemberment and death during the making of snuff films.

Rex Stout, a vocal supporter of the First Amendment in public life, was less welcoming to women’s speech. His last Nero Wolfe book, A Family Affair, (1975) features a feminist—strident and hostile, as feminists are frequently described—who refuses to answer the questions put to her by Archie Goodwin and Saul Panzer, the detectives who work for Wolfe. Goodwin advises Panzer to rape the woman to force her to co-operate in an interrogation. Archie is saying that as a feminist, she is speaking out of turn — in this case, she is keeping silent out of turn: she is refusing to speak when Archie and Saul command her to.

Other books, such as Benjamin Schutz’s Embrace the Wolf, (1985) showed that even a woman pentathlete could be emotionally destroyed by rape. Schutz’s protagonist rescues the woman, whom he finds huddled in a stall in the women’s toilet, but there’s a subtext there telling women they will be punished, and violently, for daring to compete in a male world. By becoming a victim, the pentathlete becomes a sympathetic creature, not a threatening one.

As women began taking up more space, both in fiction and the workplace, the graphic rape and dismemberment of women began to take center stage in mainstream fiction and film, including crime fiction. Many of these books are set in the world of sex trafficking. Some writers, most famously Stieg Larsson in the Millennium Trilogy, are writing with the stated goal of exposing the horrors of what is an indisputably horrible part of modern life. A number of other internationally bestselling writers, many of them feminists, share this stated purpose in addressing the abuse of women.

The line between exploitation and exposure is a hard one to walk. While I’m aware of and appalled by the widespread abuse of women—including trafficking, slavery, enforced prostitution, and murder for pleasure—I haven’t figured out a way to address this massive violence in my fiction. As with any difficult topic, fiction should raise awareness without preaching and without titillating.

Given the number of writers willing to incorporate assault against women into their work, my absence is not noticeable. Recent books show women hung from the ceiling in cages (LeMaître), women sodomized and beaten (Gould); women skinned (Harris, Hayder), murdered while having sex (Crichton, Leon, Manotti). It is perhaps my failure as a reader and a feminist, but the weight of these books, even those with a feminist intent, leaves me feeling degraded, not empowered.

At the same time that writers are bringing graphic rape, dismemberment, snuff films and human trafficking into myriad crime novels, they are also subjecting their female heroes to abuse.

Detectives like V. I. came to life in a time of bravado, when my peers and I were pushing the boundaries of what women could be and do. We wrote out of a kind of cockiness: we’re doing a job because we want it, we like the work, no one can stop us.

Today, the female hero often has been brutally assaulted herself, as is the case with Lisbeth Salander, or suffered some other form of serious trauma. It’s as if the only acceptable reason for a woman to embrace the investigative life is to recover from damage, or get revenge for it—not because she takes pleasure in the work, and comes to it as a free spirit.

Women fighting crime are also often small. Lisbeth Salander is five feet tall, weighs 88 pounds, and doesn’t have noticeable breasts or hips. She is acceptable to readers and reviewers because she looks like a doll, not a woman. Imagine her as five-foot eight, with a G-cup and weighing 160 pounds. As the boy-girl, the rape endurer, we can feel a certain patronizing protectiveness toward her. If she took up room, had a woman’s mature body, we might turn away from her.

In the world of entertainment, including film and video games, violence against women isn’t limited to fiction. In 2014, when Anita Sarkeesian posted an online video series analyzing the way women are presented as rape and murder targets in video games, she received death and rape threats. These included posting her home address, phone number, and email accounts as well as those of her parents so that assailants could target her directly. The threats included graphic descriptions of how to assault her with hot tire irons.

These threats came not because Sarkeesian called for censorship, nor because she urged her readers to assault gamers who enjoy rape scenes. They came because Sarkeesian was reporting on the industry. The attacks are notable partly because it underscores how vested parts of our society are in demeaning and reifying women. The attacks also parallel the way in which abortion providers are routinely targeted online: abortion opponents post providers’ home addresses and phone numbers, put their pictures on websites with bulls’ eyes over their faces (next to photographs of murdered doctors like Dr. Tiller), and send death threats not just to the doctors and nurses, but to their children. Women who have abortions also often receive threatening phone calls and emails.

Women taking up public space in anything other than the role of servant, whore or victim, women claiming active agency for their lives seems to create such a gigantic narcissistic wound in some breasts that only our violent destruction can ameliorate it. Women wanting to act as their own and sole moral agents in making reproductive decisions are claiming their bodies for themselves, taking them out of the realm of object and making themselves subjects. This is apparently experienced as a potent attack, deserving of punishment.

I experienced a mild version of this reaction after I started Sisters in Crime, a group which advocates for women in the crime writing world. We began modestly in 1986, concerned by the fact that crime novels by men were seven times more likely to be reviewed than those by women. This statistic meant that women writers were far more likely than men to have short careers, because libraries—still today the main purchasers of crime fiction—wouldn’t buy a book without at least two reviews in a nationally juried publication.

As soon as Sisters began gaining traction, we came in for attack in the fanzines of that era. Writers claimed we were advocating censorship and trying to remove men from the crime fiction world. I got an anonymous letter telling me rape would shut me up—but that was one letter, not ten thousand death threats.

In 1992, the Chicago Tribune—then the most important newspaper in the Great Lakes region—published an attack on me and Sisters by Bill Brashler, who was both a reporter and a crime writer.

Brashler claimed my goal was to get rid of books by men. To underscore how dangerous I was, he attacked my clothes and my appearance—I was ominously dressed all in black; I had “a pointed nose and eyes that cut and slash.” I sounded like a cross between the stereotype of the predatory Jew in Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and the Wicked Witch of the West. All because I advocated for women to have a seat at the big table.

This reaction to my words, or the gamer universe’s reaction to Sarkeesian’s words made me think seriously about V. I.’s role. When I got the letter from the woman who thought V. I. should be punished for talking back to men, and read it in the context of what was happening to women’s bodies in fiction and in the political arena, I realized that V. I.’s main function is to speak.

It’s true that my detective is physical—she is sometimes criticized for being too physical, for courting danger and taking her lumps. Her main function, though, is to speak, to say those things that people in power want to keep unsaid, unheard. Her job is to advocate for those on the margins. It is her speech that unleashes a physical reaction against her: she does not provoke the powerful by punching their noses, but by speaking when they want her to be quiet.

When you speak—and when you are heard—you are committing a political act. Those who are silent—are silenced—have no access to change, to choice, or to control of their lives.

It is no coincidence that the Taliban, that most fiercely repressive of religious regimes, silenced Afghan women so completely that they had to whisper at home and could be flogged if a man heard their footsteps.

The overwhelming effect of video games, of books and movies with women raped, skinned, snuffed out is to push women into a similar silence.

  1. I. is not a victim. She will be attacked because the physical is an automatic extension in our world of the fear of women’s agency. She will not fall, though, and she will never stop talking back.