Exciting New Voices in the Private Eye Novel
Ingrid Thoft. Photo: Doug Berrett.
Back in the heady days of the late 1970s and well into the ’90s, when the PI genre was blowing off the shackles of its past, there seemed to be a new female private detective every week.
But let’s get it straight—V.I. Warshawski, Kinsey Millhone, Sharon McCone, Anna Lee and all their fellow sisters in crime did not rescue us all from some exclusive men’s-only club populated entirely by sexist, knuckle dragging private dicks.
Such condemnations of the genre’s past flew hard and fast at the time on assorted Internet bulletin boards and in half-baked academic theses; self-righteous accusations full of smug validation, enthusiastic finger-pointing and political correctness gone awry. So eager to dismiss all that had gone before, almost any sweeping generalization was considered fair game, and no charge was too great to fling at such evil pale males as Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, Mike Hammer or Spenser—as though all these men were virtually interchangeable; their worldviews and philosophies all one big monolithic block of oink-oink misogyny and sexism. But hey, it was easier to spout the rhetoric than to actually read any of the books being so offhandedly dismissed.
Still, there’s no denying it was a great time for female private eyes—and their mostly female authors. Books by the likes of Liza Cody, Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Laura Lippman, and Maxine O’Callaghan presented real women being competent and professional detectives, living adult lives and making hard choices, knocking on doors and taking down names, just as their mostly male counterparts had been doing for decades. They were welcome new voices, and they played a large part in a genre that was already in the throes of a second Golden Age, a long overdue renaissance already busting at the seams with new possibilities. Yes, gender boundaries were being shattered in the genre, but so were the limitations of race, sexual preference, regionalism, nationalism, and even settings. For mystery readers—male and female alike—it was an invigorating time, and 20 or so years on, fans of the genre are still reaping those benefits.
But we’ve come a long way, baby, and nobody’s banging the drums simply because these detectives (or their authors) are female. Hell, the fact the following detectives are female may be the least interesting thing about any of them.
INGRID THOFT’S BOSTON PI FINA LUDLOW, the shamus at the heart of the appropriately titled Loyalty, is arguably the most traditional of them, the latest in a long line of rough-edged, truth-seeking private eyes who can easily trace their DNA straight back to Hammett and Chandler, allowing for stops along the genetic road map to borrow a little from Ross Macdonald and Sue Grafton (nasty family secrets), Janet Evanovich (a few quirky/cute/annoying traits), and even homie Robert B. Parker, with whom she shares an obsession with personal autonomy and sticky ethical dilemmas.
Working as the in-house investigator for Ludlow and Associates, her family’s blue-blood law firm, run with an iron hand by Carl Ludlow, her domineering father and staffed by her three attorney brothers, the twentysomething Fina’s determined to stand on her own. But when Melanie, her drama queen sister-in-law disappears, Fina discovers that she may have to choose between doing the right thing or protecting her family. When Melanie shows up dead, and her husband Rand, Fina’s brother, is charged with murder, things come to a head.
Fina’s hands-on solution won’t be a surprise to anyone who’s read the Spenser books, but she handles it with a wry toughness and true grit, and the Beantown setting and the inclusion of an ass-kicking Hawk-like sidekick suggests that Parker’s ghost might have been riding shotgun on this one. Not a perfect debut, perhaps, but I’ll be one of the first in line for round two.
QUESTIONS OF HONOR, LOYALTY, AND AUTONOMY ALSO POP UP IN LISA BRACKMANN’S Hour of the Rat, the rocking sequel to Rock Paper Tiger (2010), where we first met foulmouthed Iraq war vet Ellie McEnroe, who left a big chunk of her leg back in the desert and has carved out a new life for herself in China, of all places, acting as the representative of edgy dissident artist Zhang Jianli.
Although not technically a private eye, her motives, her dogged determination, and her burning sense of moral outrage will be familiar to anyone who’s ever read Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. Like that hardboiled classic, Ellie reluctantly agrees to do a favor for a friend and promptly gets dragged into something that’s way beyond her pay grade. It’s only a streak of pure stubbornness and possibly misplaced dedication that keeps her going.
Although Ellie’s rude wit may seem familiar, we’re a long way from Chandler’s beloved Los Angeles’ mean streets of the 1940s and ’50s—modern-day China may be every bit as mean (the air in Beijing, Ellie complains, “is out to kill her”), but Brackmann captures it all with an unflinching honesty and frank sense of moral unease that strips bare the romance and myths of “the new China”—and of the old capitalism running amuck.
Dog, an old Army buddy who got “fucked up royally,” asks Ellie to find Jason, his missing brother, supposedly on the loose somewhere in China. Feeling guilt about a brief affair they had in Iraq, Ellie reluctantly agrees.
But China’s a big country with a lot of people. Nor does it turn out to be a simple wandering-tourist job—Ellie soon discovers that Jason’s an environmental activist who’s angered both the US and Chinese governments, as well as several giant corporations who’d rather their GMO secrets stay secret.
Ellie’s PTSD-tinged hunt for Jason, as she crisscrosses China by train, bus and tractor, journeying from trendy Western-style tourist traps to toxic wastelands and back, is as intriguing as it is disturbing—and disheartening for Ellie. Initially, she considers hauling her “gimpy ass” back to Beijing, but she plows on because, as she confesses, she likes “having a mission.... Having something to do. Something that matters.”
Plus, she notes optimistically, “they might have beer.” And it’s a great way to avoid returning to her Beijing apartment where her visiting mother is waiting.
Sara Gran. Photo: Deborah Lopez.
LOCK UP YOUR MEDICINE CABINET, BECAUSE SARAH GRAN’S BISEXUAL DRUGGIE DETECTIVE CLAIRE DEWITT IS BACK. She may stick to the good ol’ USA in her second big adventure, Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway (after 2011’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead), but the psychological and emotional (and pharmaceutical) territory is all over the map.
The self-proclaimed “greatest detective in the world,” Claire is one of the most original gumshoes to ever help herself to somebody else’s meds, and there’s always another puzzle to solve, another killer to catch, another secret to strip bare, and another emotional scab to pick at.
Once again the all-night drug prowling she-wolf is on the hunt, this time investigating the murder of Paul Casablancas, a local musician and Claire’s ex-lover, who was found dead in his San Francisco home. But equally compelling is the secondary mystery, rendered in a series of flashbacks, that follows the underaged Claire and her chums Kelly and Tracy as they wander the streets of New York City, using fake IDs to drink in bars and experimenting with drugs, sex, and the basic tenets of detective work. Inspired by a series of YA stories featuring Cynthia Silverton, Girl Detective, and Détection, a how-to guide by Jacques Sillette, a mysterious French detective and philosopher whose hazy advice and contradictory ramblings on the nature of truth are taken to heart by the three girls, they are hired to find one of their friends who has gone missing. And then there’s the litany of other cases that pass through the book, some summarized in detail, some dismissed in a line or two, from The Case of the Missing Miniature Horses to The Case of the Green Parrot.
Claire will use every means at her disposal, from legwork, intuition, and blind luck to dreams, hallucinations, and junkie logic to crack a case. But don’t be dismayed. This surreal trip of a novel might be a mess in the hands of most writers, but Gran (the author of the acclaimed modern noir Dope), holds it all together like some sort of literary alchemist, stirring together the gee-whiz innocence of YA girl detective novels with an adult frankness that will have some readers cackling with glee—and others reaching for the smelling salts. Either way, the result is a rich, pungent, reality shaking concoction that’ll make your head spin. Take a whiff.
Kevin Burton Smith is the founder and editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #131.