Sisters in Crime is the name of an organization of female mystery story writers and the tide of two books published in 1988-1989. One book is a collection of stories by twenty-two female American mystery story writers—the first of three projected volumes—and the other is the book here reviewed. The recurrence of the title is indicative of a major trend in mysteries. The membership rolls of Mystery Writers of America indicate that some forty percent of its members are women, and feminist interest in the genre seems to be growing. This development is especially interesting because the crime novel has been historically such a quintessentially conservative and patriarchal form, depending for its satisfying effect upon an authoritarian male figure who establishes order out of seeming chaos.
Maureen Reddy has performed a valuable service in charting the territory of modern women writers who have responded to the challenge of modifying the inherited form to make it useful to feminists. Focusing on the surprisingly large number of women writers who have created female protagonists appearing in a series of novels, she has divided their central characters into free-lancing amateurs, academics, members of police forces, loners and hard-boiled women, and lesbian detectives, with a chapter devoted to each category.
Tracing the lineage of the authors back to Dorothy Sayers in Gaudy Night, Reddy credits that book as the first to project a feminist perception of the problems of female character development in a male-ordered world. Crime novels are splendidly adapted to showing how and why society kills women, but writers are nonetheless faced with problems of how to circumvent stock plot situations (the helpless female rescued by the strong, masterful male) and how to subvert the standard monologic voice of the authoritarian male protagonist. Reddy suggests that female writers modify the genre by violating linear progress and by using a dialogic form that admits multiple voices of authority rather than one. She also shows that female crime novels are likely to end with unresolved ambiguities or to resist neatly contrived closure.
Reddy acknowledges a number of early stumbling steps in the adaptation of the crime novel by feminists—the strong women detectives who simply imitated male models and the lapses into acceptance of other patriarchal precedents. She finds significant progress, however, in the works of Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Amanda Cross, Marcia Muller, Susan Dunlap, P. D. James, Liza Cody, and Katherine Forrest, among others.
Amanda Cross and P. D. James receive Reddy's highest accolades. Reddy's ultimate criterion for excellence is subtlety and complexity of character, and this defensible bias leads her to single out James's work as "serious fiction," leaving the unfortunate implication that other works may not be "serious." Her absorption with character also sometimes causes her to slight considerations of plots and narrative strategies. Her inclusion of so many novelists necessarily involves some reductionist generalities. She is surely misleading in implying that dialogic narrative that undercuts authority is uniquely feminine. But her conclusion that the unsatisfying resolutions and rejections of conventional closures in women's crime novels are symptomatic of profound feminist dissatisfaction with society is provocative and convincing. [End Page 869]
This pioneering study is an important contribution to the recognition and analysis of the burgeoning library of women's crime novels. The prose is lucid; the format is attractive; and the bibliography should prove extremely useful to those who wish to read further.