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Murder by the Book? is a valuable complement to and extension of Kathleen G. Klein’s The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre (U of Illinois P, 1988). Scholarly, persuasive, and readable, both books examine the effect of the emergence of female sleuths on the development of the detective fiction genre. What fascinates is how two competent feminist critics and detective fiction scholars, posing similar questions about gender and genre, reach contradictory conclusions by selecting different texts for study and using different critical methods.
Klein’s book focuses on the history of the professional woman detective in British and US fiction. By examining novels from the 1860s to the 1980s, comparing them to selected texts with male detectives, and juxtaposing fiction with the reality of women’s lives since 1864, Klein concludes that detective fiction is inherently conservative in its sexual politics. Within the conventional parameters of the male-defined genre, a professional woman detective is inevitably doomed to failure as detective, woman, or both.
British critic Sally R. Munt, on the other hand, discusses a range of mystery-solving women characters, including amateurs and police officers, with emphasis on contemporary crime novels, many from alternative presses in Britain and the US. Her study was motivated in [End Page 232] part by the observation that the crime novel has been parodied since its beginnings. In reference to Rex Stout’s infamous 1931 essay “Watson was a Woman,” she asks whether Stout was “saying something profound about the genre itself, destabilizing its masculinity, revealing its self-parody, and paying homage to the structure of femininity disseminated through it, or was he suggesting that women could only be part of the genre if they cross-dressed?” Munt was also motivated by the feminist crime novels proliferating in the 1980s. Was this a sign that “feminists had retrenched into a reactionary genre for reactionary times,” or did the detective fiction genre offer revolutionary pleasures for feminist or proto-feminist readers?
Munt argues in her opening chapter that an alternative reading of the crime fiction canon reveals genre subversion and transformation by women writers who broke the rules, parodied the genre, and moved it in the direction of greater realism and social commentary. Detective fiction’s satiric structure and long tradition of female/feminist parody and gender/genre bending made possible the current feminist experimentation.
Unlike Klein, Munt sees the detective fiction genre as receptive to revolutionary politics, although she acknowledges that underlying some ostensibly feminist contemporary texts are conservative ideas about class, race, and gender. Munt emphasizes radical texts that successfully deconstruct traditional political ideas and genre formulations: for example, Sarah Schulman’s The Sophie Horowitz Story, Barbara Wilson’s Sisters of the Road, and Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam.
Munt begins her examination of contemporary feminist crime novels with liberal feminist and socialist feminist crime fiction, the former pleasurable reading but often insufficiently radical and the latter politically correct but too often didactic and dull. She then investigates race politics in crime fiction and novels that feature lesbian detectives. She ends her survey with crime novels with psychoanalytic and postmodern structures and themes.
Munt’s excellent concluding chapter suggests that despite
its well-known apparent “unsuitability” for women, crime fiction clearly can manifest feminine novelistic forms, and feminist political agendas. Its mutability as a genre rests with its ability to combine elements of other forms such as realism and satire which have their roots in a radical sensibility. [End Page 233] The peculiar attraction of a crime novel is its ability to appease sometimes contradictory desires, which presumably can placate the feminine and provoke the feminist in all of us.
Munt acknowledges a weakness in her argument when she states her book needs a complementary study “of male writers and the influence of female writers and the feminist discourse upon their texts.” Robert Parker, Joseph Hansen, Michael Nava, and Tony Hillerman, like their female contemporaries, are presenting alternatives to the tough guy private eye of the hard-boiled tradition and the intellectual superman of the classic...