Good Reading : July 2001
fatalefiction wenty years ago, three authors – Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton – led the way in one of the most exciting publishing events of the eighties: the emergence of the female private eye as a key player in the detective fiction game. Two decades later, the ranks of the monstrous regiment of women crime fiction writers and their investigators have swelled to such an extent that those infamous mean streets are practically blocked to any other traffic. As for the three standard bearers: well, they’re marching on, though Sara Paretsky is semi-retired and Marcia Muller’s work is still sought out only by crime fiction buffs. Of this talented and trend- making trio, it’s Sue Grafton who has become the biggest success story. The annual publication of Grafton’s alphabet mysteries is an event readers eagerly anticipate, much as they used to wait for the yearly ‘Christie for Christmas’. T elements for a All the perfect murder Her latest, P is for Peril (Pan Macmillan $28.00) sees this popular writer at the top of her form. All the elements for a perfect murder mystery are present. Grafton’s style, moving effortlessly as it does here from action to introspection, from gritty realism to wry, wise- cracking asides, reveals someone totally in command of her voice. Grafton has always had a strong sense of pace – perhaps she learned that from her early years writing for television – and she can make even a minor character live with just a few strokes of the pen. Long after you 12 have read P is for Peril, you’ll remember the cast of characters, most particularly Kinsey’s indelibly weird client Fiona Purcell, who has hired her to find the former Mr Purcell, a nursing home doctor who vanished six weeks before. Fiona dresses like a vamp from a classic film noir: ‘I half-expected an appearance by John Agar or Fred MacMurray, some poor feckless male who’d fallen prey to this vixen with her fierce shoulder pads ... the effect was stylish, but everything about her suggested estate sales and vintage clothing shops’, Kinsey remarks. Fiona Purcell’s costumed appearance, her house with its period furniture and dusty, half-decorated rooms resembling an old film set in the This month sees the release of several new titles from women crime writers. Christine Cremen is at the scene of the murders. process of being dismantled and a scene with corpse in a car being winched out of its watery grave all add to the noirish, nightmare quality of P is for Peril. But while Grafton’s fans will revel in the skillfully evoked atmosphere, what we’re really looking forward to is the chance to catch up with Kinsey Milhone, whom many of us regard as an old friend. Female sleuths in murder mysteries have changed quite a bit since we first met the detectives created by Grafton and the other members of the Big Three. To begin with, not all of them are private eyes. The female private eye was a feminist response to the traditional hero of hard- boiled crime fiction – the lone white knight with his trench coat and fedora – but it was also a reflection of the lack of job opportunities for women in the public sector of law enforcement. Now, of course, there are almost as many female police officers in books as there are on the beat, as well as the odd woman employed in the low-rent end of law enforcement, such as Janet Evanovich’s bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. Stephanie began working for her cousin Vinnie, a bail bondsman, at ‘the fugitive apprehension thing’ when she lost her job in discount lingerie. A sassy, spandex-wearing babe, Stephanie is an important figure because she addresses a lucrative but relatively untapped sector of the market: people in their twenties. (Women who buy crime fiction tend to be in the 35-plus age group, as do most of the characters.) Grafton calls Kinsey her alter-ego, the person she might have been if she hadn’t married young and had children, and the woman she’d like to be, at least some of the time. But then a lot of us would quite like to be Kinsey. This ex-cop-turned-private eye is in her early thirties, and tending to stay there, something most of us would like to do (or like to have done). The maxim that she lives by is ‘no kids, no house plants, no pets’. She dresses for comfort, doesn’t cook and has a fondness for junk food. Grafton gets a lot of letters from readers who worry about Kinsey’s unhealthy eating habits, though she’s always welcome at the dinner table of her kindly octogenarian landlord Henry for a delicious casserole and some of his home-baked bread. So Kinsey has this warm refuge, but at the same time maintains her independence, which makes her a very appealing wish- fulfilment fantasy figure. Henry, a nurturing father substitute, is the only constant male figure in Kinsey Milhone’s life. After a couple of failed marriages, she’s wary of men, an attitude which suited Grafton’s fans when Kinsey first appeared in the wake of the women’s movement. Twenty years on from the publication of A is for Alibi, where Kinsey ends up shooting, in self-defence, the man she is attracted to, the advent in P is for Peril of another potential lover – a sexy younger man – is going to place her in mortal danger yet again.