Editorial January 2007: Gender in Mysteries By Hilary Williamson
Have you noticed the strong trend in mysteries to stereotypical brooding, older male protagonists, with dysfunctional social and family lives? Lately, I keep bumping into these antiheroes who, though well seasoned on the job, have plenty of personal devils to combat. Though I don't always like their actions, I empathize with the individuals and am drawn into the complexity of their lives.
A long-time fan of Ian Rankin, I enjoy Inspector John Rebus, warts and all. Flawed as he is, he always gets his villain and his career survives his ongoing scuffles with superiors. Like Rebus, Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch has always been his own worst enemy, and James Lee Burke's southern Dave Robicheaux also wrestles with violence and alcoholism. I've been hooked for many years on Martin Cruz Smith's cynical, almost doomed, investigator Arkady Renko. I'm intrigued by Charles Todd's Inspector Ian Rutledge who's (literally) haunted by his wartime experiences. And I just started reading about Icelandic Arnaldur Indrišason's Detective Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, who lives in squalor and agonizes over the fallout from his own past, while solving unusual crimes.
Where are the women? If they're not sidekicks like the fascinating Amelia Sachs in Jeffery Deaver's marvelous Lincoln Rhyme novels, they're typically young, feisty heroines, whose social and family problems tend to be lighter than those of their male counterparts. Some of my favorites are Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski (though her life has darkened as the series progressed) Val McDermid's PI Kate Brannigan, Sujata Massey's Japanese American Rei Shimura, Lisa Scottoline's array of all-female lawyers, Elizabeth Peters' archeologist Amelia Peabody (whose cranky side delights me) and Gillian Roberts' charming Philly teacher, Amanda Pepper. Though typically younger and not as jaded, they are like their male counterparts in being independent, often loners, and with a stubborn desire to see justice done.
Of course there are always counterexamples. For contrasts to the typical mystery heroine, think Dana Stabenow's tough survivor, Kate Shugak; Carol O'Connell's fierce, single-minded enigma Mallory; Robert K. Tanenbaum's scarred, vengeful and lawless Marlene Ciampi, and Denise Mina's chubby wannabe crime reporter, Paddy Meehan in gritty Glasgow, Scotland. On the other hand, Robert Parker's Spenser and the prolific James Patterson's Alex Cross are uncomplicated nice guys, while David Rosenfelt's Andy Carpenter and Lindsey Davis's Marcus Didius Falco are delightfully self-deprecating and just as perky as many cozy mystery heroines.
As the baby boomer population ages and the publishing industry accepts the fact of increasing numbers of women in the tougher professions, perhaps we'll see more deeply conflicted, older female protagonists, who bring a life's worth of baggage to the table. Let's hear it for the world's crochety, aging Maxines starring in their very own mystery series! Bring them on!
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