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August 6, 2016

Well, women mystery writers finally are getting the attention that they deserve.  A lengthy article in the July/August issue of The Atlantic by Terrence Rafferty is an excellent critique of contemporary female authors in this genre and is definitely worth reading.

Of course, there have always been women who wrote mysteries, many of them absolute mistresses of the craft.  Naturally, Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Patricia Highsmith, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Dorothy L. Sayers are five names to reckon with from the Golden Age.  And then there are contemporary women who began writing a couple of decades ago or more and whose novels are as fresh as ever:  Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Margaret Maron, Marcia Muller, and Donna Leon to name five more.

But Mr. Rafferty’s article highlights a “third coming” of women writers, authors whose heroines can out-tough any male detective around.  Part of the re-blossoming, if I may coin a word, is the emphasis that these authors place on the feminine in their works.  With contemporary best-sellers like Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, The Luckiest Girl Alive, The Good Girl, All the Missing Girls, Pretty Girls, and The Girls:  A Novel, it’s quite obvious that the focus has shifted from Raymond Chandler’s “down these mean streets a man must go” to Mr. Rafferty’s clever twist, “down these mean tweets a woman must go….”  Or perhaps that should be girl.

Many of these new mysteries strongly ask the reader to cherchez la femme.  But rather than look for the prototypical woman of the (prehistoric) pulps of the 30s and 40s, the bottle blonde with a slinky black dress cut down to there and up to here, now la femme is just as likely to be the police detective or the private investigator as she is to be the lady in distress.  She may have her own detective firm, be a county sheriff, or have risen through the ranks of a city police department.  Of course, she’s also just as likely to be the villain(ess) as be the heroine, but that’s what equal opportunity and Title IX mean.

Returning once again to The Atlantic article, Terrence Rafferty includes the poets T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden as among “… those of us who choose to entertain ourselves, from to time, with made-up stories of murder, mayhem, and deceit….”  Perhaps now, with the proliferation of women authors and protagonists, the late poets Silvia Plath and Gwendolyn Brooks could have their illustrious names added to the list of other serious writers who enjoyed reading about the investigative exploits or treacherous plans of their own sex.

Just sayin’.


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