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Forms of Agency in Women's Detective Fiction in the Seventies

Rereading P D James' An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972) and Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat (1970)


1. The novel's plot revolves around the adventures of Cordelia Gray, who, after the suicide of her partner undertakes to keep his detective agency open, despite the scepticism she encounters. Her first assignment is to investigate the motives that led Mark, the son of the prominent scientist Ronald Callender, to commit suicide. She finally manages to uncover the whole scheme behind Mark's death, which is actually a murder executed by Mark's own father, and thus defends her suitability for the profession. back

2. In this very dark novella the reader follows Lise, a woman with weird clothes and even more eccentric behaviour, in her search for a man during a trip in an unspecified country in the South. A proleptic narrative leap shatters the reader's initial misconception of the existence of a romance plot, (a woman seeking a lover), with the gruesome ending being disclosed early in the novel: Lise will finally be murdered according to her own careful plot, as she is actually in search for a person to kill her. In the final scene, Lise, at the verge of dying, is also raped against her will by a panicky murderer. back

3.This is a term borrowed from Lidia Curti (Curti 1998:30). back

4. The expression is taken from Pyrhonen's Mayhem and Murder (Pyrhonen 1999:195). back

5. Here I mainly have in mind Joyce Carol Oates' Do with me what you will (1973) and Diane Johnson's The Shadow Knows (1974), both being novels of suppressed criminality and murder where the detective genre exists as a hypertext. back

6. As P Walton and M Jones postulate, it has become a critical commonplace to observe that the phenomenon of feminist activism and changes in society occurring during the 1960s and early seventies made possible shifts in the conception of the fictional detective hero (Walton 1999:12). back

7. See SueEllen Campbell (Campbell 1983:498). back

8. Nixon, having the novel's title in mind argues: 'Cordelia in fact represents the very means by which such antiquated and "chauvinist" statements can be critiqued and strenuously rejected'( Nixon in Irons 1995:32). back

9. Nixon describes Cordelia Gray as 'a touchstone of early seventies feminism' (ibid:30), 'a hardringe or prototype of the seventies new woman' (32) and argues that 'James implies that the culturally suitable job for a woman, -nursing- is suitable only superficially, that the modern woman is more than capable of doing justice to the seemingly less suitable job of private detecting' (31). back

10. In Indemnity Only (1982) by Sara Paretsky for instance, the detective V.I. Warshawski encounters the same mode of conservative thinking: 'Well, this really isn't a job for a girl to take alone' (9). back

11. A Suitable job for a Woman: Inside the World of Women Private Eyes by Val McDermit and 'An Unsuitable Genre for a Feminist' by Cora Kaplan are two characteristic examples. back

12. Anne Cranny-Francis while discussing genre fiction postulates that feminist texts 'work against conservative ideological discourses [. . .] not just on events and characters represented in their texts but also on the conventions and the structures of the genre in which they operate' (Cranny-Francis 1990:1). Moreover, Lidia Curti speaks of the 'contamination of genres' (Curti 1998:40), that is, of generic transgression in recent formulaic novels that feminist literary practice brings forth. Such transgression is evident in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman when melodramatic features (the story of how Mark's biological and adoptive mother get along), are combined with grotesque traces (the description of Mark's dead body) and gothic touches [Cordelia's fall in the well is, as Mary Joannou suggests, akin to the nineteenth-century gothic heroine's adventures (Joannou 2000:139)]. back

13. Together with the uncovering of the perpetrator, the classical role of the detective is to conceal the nature of crime and thus safeguard the already established social order and morality. This is because crime is not seen 'as a condition and product of a particular ideology' (Cranny-Francis 1990:153) but merely as an aberrant individual's fault. Individuals are evil, not social roles and institutions. back

14. Here I refer to Erica Jong's Fear of Flying (1973), a very popular seventies feminist novel of the first person (the so-called 'confessional' novel). Isadora Wing, the novel's central character epitomises the concept of the liberated woman with a coherent subjectivity that is posed against the dominant patriarchal ideology of the time. back

15. I have in mind Sara Paretsky's Indemnity Only where the strong, witty and funny detective V.I. Warshawski is the central character and Janet Evanovich's novels Two for a Dough and Four to Score with Grandma Mazur as a mechanism to undercut the female detective's multiple framings by patriarchy. back

16. When the novella was first published, an exasperated review came out: 'The Story of O is, by comparison, a riot of realism and an orgy of self indulgence'. Judy Little in her book Comedy and the Woman Writer has collected more such examples. back

17. Judy Little has argued that 'in The Driver's Seat, feminism is presented by means of elaborate reversals; it is treated ironically but it is not disavowed' (Little 1983:156). back

18. By Peter Kemp in Muriel Spark (Kemp 1974:129), Norman Page in Muriel Spark, (Page 1990:69), Ruth Whittaker in The Faith and Fiction of Muriel Spark (Whittaker 1982:96-97) among others. back

19. See William Mcbrian's 'Muriel Spark: The novelist as a Dandy' (Mcbrian in Staley 1982). back

20. Alain Robbe-Grillet's Les Gommes is a famous example of 'undoing' the detective novel. Stephen Heaths' The Nouveau Roman: A Study in the Practice of Writing offers an interesting insight in Grillet's oeuvre. back

21. For example: 'She puts the bunch of keys in her hand-bag, picks up her paperback book and goes out, locking the door behind her. Who knows her thoughts? Who can tell?' (50), the narrative voice wonders. back

22. According to The Oxford Handbook of Criminology, the term 'victimology' appears to have been coined by the American psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, but it is the work of his contemporary, Hans Von Hentig, who 'proposed a new, dynamic approach, challenging the conception of the victim as passive actor by adopting an interactionist stance' [Mike Maguire, Rod Morgan, Robert Reiner (eds) (1994:1208)], that made victimology more widely known. back