Introduction to Marele Day: Reading Women's Crime Fiction, Some Problems

By Levy, Bronwen | Hecate, May 31, 1989 | Go to article overview

Introduction to Marele Day: Reading Women's Crime Fiction, Some Problems


Levy, Bronwen, Hecate


The emergence over the past few years of a flourishing feminist crime fiction raises questions for writers and readers. In the article on her novel, The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender, Marele Day outlines the challenges of the depiction of a professional female sleuth. Day employs the traditionally masculine, hard-boiled (or Chandleresque) version of the genre, but with an important difference: Claudia Valentine is both "a fully realised woman and a competent professional operator."(1) Women private investigators, of course, do not feature in the American hard-boiled school where women are victims or seductresses, the objects, not the subjects of inquiry. By contrast, the women investigators of the British school, like Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, are presented asexually and as outsiders. It seems that, as elsewhere, a binary opposition has been in operation in both dominant versions of the crime fiction genre and a dichotomy has developed between female sexuality and female subjectivity.

Day's refusal of this dichotomy can thus be seen to represent a rewriting of some crime fiction orthodoxies. Her critique includes also a sharp look also at Australian (especially Sydney) society in the late 1980s, with the major issues being corruption, urban development and the new technology, all of which seem overwhelming to her erstwhile 1970s radicals grown older and less adventurous. Crime fiction as a genre is well-placed to question social issues at the same time as individuals' attempts to combat these are highlighted. The success of the lone individual against all odds points to the conservative, and essentially bourgeois affiliations of much of the genre, though. Interestingly, one of the twists of Day's plot (and of some other feminist crime fiction) is that the detective does not really triumph. This suggests that, for some feminist crime fiction at least, writing a politically questioning woman detective involves challenging ideologies of bourgeois individualism.

As Day remarks, the writing of her novel may be understood as a reading, or re-reading of the detective form: "writing is not an authorial monologue but a process of dialoguing with the text in production." Women's liberation-inclined readers of detective fiction will read in similar circumstances. Among other things, we will be concerned with how to read the dominant versions of the genre: how to read feminist (and other radical) interventions into it; how to read feminist crime fiction in relation to women's writing generally; how to develop a cultural theory able to address the complicated politics of all these questions. Like another popular form, romance fiction, the crime genre is contradictory (although in different ways), for feminism and will also involve, for Australian writers and readers, the particular mediations of our `national' cultural location.(2)

We could usefully start by refusing the orthodoxy, even among feminists, of seeing crime fiction as an inherently, or even an historically masculine form. This is not to say that dominant versions of the form have not encoded what we might understand as traditional `masculine' and `feminine' values, nor that some versions of the form (such as the hard-boiled school discussed by Day below) have not been especially associated with male writers. But women have in fact long been readers of detective fiction, and recent feminist work is uncovering a number of submerged women writers, including nineteenth century Australian ones.(3) Women's popular fiction may be better understood as being in the position of women's `literary' fiction at the beginnings of the new revisionary feminist criticism. Critics at this stage had to reject dominant patriarchal prejudices about the small number of `great' women writers in order to `see' the writers who were there. Another popular form, science fiction, is also often erroneously seen as a masculine preserve, as Lucy Sussex points out elsewhere in this Hecate.

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