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Cordelia versus Lise:
Two striking versions of power distribution
in women's detective fiction in the seventies.

Maria Vara

Since the early consciousness-raising seventies, the highly formulaic and conservative detective genre has undergone a number of significant transformations in the hands of women writers. P. D. James's novel An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972) fits easily within this atmosphere of change, whereas Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat (1970) is a novella not often associated with feminism, let alone with the detective genre. This paper will argue that the two texts juxtaposed can offer a clear perception of the mechanics of power distribution within the fictional realm in the early seventies.

Cordelia Gray, in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, is the first female detective read as an icon of feminist independence. Her active participation in the centre of power and her determination to solve all mysteries and reestablish order have turned her into an emblem of feminism. In a parallel narrative universe, Muriel Spark has been accused for bad faith: The Driver's Seat was firstly read as "a slap to the face of feminist campaigners", due to its protagonist, Lise, who is a highly problematic figure, a grotesquely empowered victim-detective, an active participant of her death. It will be argued that Lise unravels more subtle workings of power than those of Cordelia, despite the first impression of the opposite. Lise foreshadows sly possibilities of agency: We can read The Driver's Seat as an anti-detective novel, a distorted mirror image of the formulaic and popular detective fiction of the seventies. The concept of the detective as an agent of order and cohesion (the grand riddle-solver) is hollowed by Lise whereas Cordelia reaffirms and reestablishes the detective's role. Lise then, can be seen to expose the detective genre's sly ideological undercurrents on a level deeper than Cordelia, so her contribution to the disruption of the conventional detective formulas need reevaluation.

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