B is for Burglar [1986]

One of the most common critiques of hard-boiled detective fiction is that it is highly masculine. The reasons for that are as complex and inexorable as the male domination of other genres, and exist on manifold layers. In the first place, the protagonists are all male in the so-called canon. Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald, Spillane – not a female protagonist amongst them. The distribution of killers is almost the inverse – Macdonald and Hammett are about 50/50, but Chandler’s femmes are all fatale, and Spillane positively delights in not only having women as killers but in sadistically executing them for it when caught. Simply introducing a female detective is not necessarily sufficient. In “Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction: Gendering the Canon”, Johanna Smith argues that

In Burn Marks, for instance, V. I. Warshawski does face a problem unimaginable for a male detective (whether caring for her aunt should override her work), but she is also capable of simpering that “it just felt good to have… some man … think… that I should be working” (117). In other words, she remains male-defined, sometimes to the point of unintentional parody: when she dumps a man for questioning her professional judgment but later decides to “be friendly” with him so as to “turn [his company] into a major account” (260), she becomes the Woman Careerist from Hell.

I interpreted Burn Marks only a little differently. Warshawski is a female analogue of Philip Marlowe, in that she is more than a little passive-aggressive, and stuck on stubbornly doing things her way. The “feminisation” of Marlowe into Warshawski is in a lot of ways expressed in terms of greater freedom, greater confidence, and the fiction offering a perspective on her life outside of her case. If we compare Marlowe with Sam Spade, I don’t think we’d be tempted to describe him as effeminate, but his passivity and his defensiveness do stand in some kind of contrast with Spade’s hyper-masculinity. Smith offers Sue Grafton’s detective as a  genuinely feminine detective because

her detective Kinsey Millhone combines conventional “masculinity” and “femininity” so as to blur the distinction between them. While Millhone’s obsessive independence might seem “masculine” or her emotional vulnerability “feminine,” in conjunction these conventions lose their gender coding. Gender-blind in a positive way, Grafton’s novels de-masculinize hard-boiled detection by representing it simply as a job with Millhone simply the (female) person doing it.

Smith is not the only one to use these two authors as her feminizing axes of reference, but I think that she has elided a crucial step. Is Kinsey Millhone a hard-boiled detective? If we think about Breu’s definition of the hard-boiled masculine detective as having a “prophylactic toughness” that goes virtually all the way through, then Warshawski seems to me to fit right in. She is what you get if you boil a female private investigator until hard all the way through. Millhone, on the other hand, seems essentially to remain a human being. She’s not so much the feminine hard-boiled dick as not hard-boiled. She seems to me to fit quite well into the older, broader, and much more gender-accepting general genre of detective fiction. I think that she has been drafted into the hard-boiled concept on the basis that she is a private investigator, rather than a nosy spinster. That may be a completely valid use of the term too – another famous neo-hard-boiler is Bill Pronzini, whose “Nameless” detective is clearly modelled on the Continental Op, but whose mysteries are more-or-less of the drawing-room sort, with the same fiddling about with time-tables, methods for committing murders in locked rooms, a semi-incestuous circle of background romances… the whole bit. Grafton hasn’t even explicitly grabbed all of the usual visual cues in the way Pronzini has managed. Nevertheless, I think that if we try and interpret Grafton as re-imagining a feminine version of any of the canonical hard-boiled detectives, we’re going to pull in as much material from the wider genre as gender traits, and I’m not sure that’s particularly helpful. As noted though, if we think about Millhone as a response or an update to the model provided by Mrs Marple rather than Sam Spade, we aren’t going to find many points of correspondence to work with either.

Let’s turn from the character of Kinsey Millhone and think about the story she’s in. Like all noir, B is for Burglar begins with a dame who reeks of trouble walking into the office, smoking… and smoking hot. She’s looking for her sister, but she’s not telling the dick everything. She pays up front, more than if she were telling the truth and enough more to make it alright. A simple missing person’s case soon turns up a body, and the case is on. It’s a case of murder covered by a stolen identity – in fact, it is One, Two, Buckle my Shoe. Millhone isn’t either Miss Marple nor Sam Spade – she’s Hercule Poirot; who has, I might add, been accused of effeminacy more than once by detractors, despite his mustachios.

I liked B is for Burglar, but it seems clear to me that it doesn’t contribute much to un-gendering the masculine genre of the hard-boiled detective. In some ways, I think the problem is that it shouldn’t have to. It appears to me that Smith and others also like Grafton, and since they are looking for a feminine version of a very male-dominated genre, they have pushed her to the front. It’s not at all unreasonable, and I expect that the quotient of feminisation and hard-boiling will be different in her different novels. As always, drawing a novel into a wider political conflict obscures its real qualities. B is for Burglar is a fairly well put together detective novel, but it’s soft-boiled.

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