Sisters in Crime Challenge Post #1: The PI novel

One day in 1987 I asked a librarian to recommend some mysteries by contemporary women writers. I walked away with my first books by both Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, so the two are inextricably linked for me. Both have long-running series featuring gutsy female private investigators and my 19 year old self adored them. Until that point virtually all of the non-dead women I’d encountered in my mystery reading had been children (Nancy Drew and Trixie Beldon) (perhaps we’ll leave for another day the fact that it’s always been easier to find smart, feisty characters for young girls to identify with in fiction than to find intelligent, feisty women for adult women to look to for inspiration), elderly (Miss Marple who is at the other end of the ‘sexless’ scale) or bits on the side for the men who solved crimes (I can’t name you one particular woman) (which is, in its way, my point). The very notion of a young woman running her own business, solving crimes on her own, being at the centre of a story instead of the periphery (not to mention having a healthy sex life without being married) was a revelation. My 43 year old self is still pretty fond of both the characters that I first encountered all those years ago.

There’s a number of reasons to like Sara Paretsky‘s work, not least of which is the character of V I (or Vic to her friends) Warshawski. I think she might be in a minority of fictional private investigators who wasn’t first in the police, though she was a lawyer with the public defender’s office. She’s independent sometimes to the point of endangering herself, can have a mean temper and is prone to sarcasm (anyone who knows me personally is wondering if I am accidentally describing myself at this point) (which probably explains my fondness for Vic).  Her business is never exactly flush with cash but she stays afloat with some steady corporate clients. The investigations that form the heart of the novels usually have some aspect of social commentary about them and it is this aspect of the books that I love most but which has also proven unsuccessful occasionally when the book has turned into more of a political rant than work of literary art. However in most of the 14 books Paretsky does a bang-up job of exploring some aspect of modern American life that undoubtedly needs some investigating. Whether it be the privatisation of prisons (1999’s Hard Time), the lengths some insurance companies will go to to weasel out of making payments (2001’s Total Recall), the aftermath of the Iraq war (2010’s Body Work) or one of the countless other social and political issues Paretsky has explored there’s always something to think about at the end of one of her novels. The BBC’s excellent monthly radio show World Book Club tackled Paretsky’s first novel, Indemnity Only, in 2007 and the show is a treat to listen to as Paretsky talks about the impetus for creating Vic, the death of the PI novel and lots of other meaty subjects.

Sue Grafton‘s work is less political in content and in some ways is even a more direct descendant of the hard-boiled PI novels that clearly inspired the series. Starting with A is for Alibi in 1982 (the same year Paretsky’s first novel was published) Kinsey Millhone has searched for missing people, investigated cold cases and generally looked into things that the police have stopped investigating in 22 books to date. The series will finish in four books’ time with (Grafton has announced) Z is for Zero. Kinsey is a real loner, a twice divorced ex-cop whose ‘family’ consists of an octogenarian landlord and a grumpy Hungarian bar owner, but she is tenacious and she does fiercely look after the few people she is close to. I know that starting all the way back at the first book of such a long series would be daunting for new readers but I think this is one series you can dip in and out of fairly easily and I think the last 2 instalments, T is for Trespass and U is for Undertow were both terrific reads. ‘U’ is particularly good being a departure from the earlier novels as it contains an entire thread of historical fiction from the 1960’s. I have to admire an author who chooses not to keep writing the same book over again even though, at this point, she could almost be forgiven for doing so.

So if I count Paretsky and Grafton as one (because I found them both at the same time) then I can mention three more ‘similar’ authors according to the rules of the challenge. Some less well-known private investigators then…

Australian author Marele Day‘s Claudia Valentine appeared in a series of four books starting with The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender which was published in 1988. I didn’t read the book until much later but, having moved to Sydney that year I can attest to the way that Day captured the time and place to perfection. Fans of feisty female PIs like Warshawski and Millhone will enjoy Claudia Valentine too and for those who’ve never tried a female PI book perhaps you should start with a smaller series 🙂

An author who has crossed genres and other literary boundaries over the years is English writer Sarah Dunant but her early 90’s trilogy featuring private investigator Hannah Wolfe is another firm favourite of mine. The first book, Birth Marks, involves Wolfe in an investigation into the death of a young girl who was heavily pregnant and the case allows Dunant the opportunity to explore the complex issue of surrogate mothers. In the remaining books animal experimentation and women’s body issues are both explored in depth in these intelligent books.

I can’t talk about celebrating the women who write private investigators without mentioning the person who created this challenge and who I recently discovered as an author. Barbara Fister has written two books (so far) featuring Chicago-based private investigator Anni Koskinen. In 2008’s In the Wind Anni is asked to help a woman who is believed by some to have been responsible for the murder of an FBI agent many years earlier. Something about Chicago must prompt politically-themed writing as Fister’s work shares this trait with Paretsky’s but she’s done a first-rate job of ensuring the story came first in this book. I have the second book in this series, Through the Cracks, near the top of my TBR pile. Why don’t you?

The PI novel has a long history within the crime fiction genre, allowing authors to explore storylines and themes that other sub-genres sometimes can’t. There are things that would simply be incredible in a police procedural that a PI novel can get away with and there is an appeal about the idea of a private investigator that has never gone away. For much of the genre’s history though the field was dominated by male writers and their male creations and it wasn’t until the late 1970’s that American Marcia Muller’s first Sharon McCone PI novel gained general acceptance then Paretsky and Grafton followed in the early 80’s. Personally I think these women writers have contributed significantly to the depth of the genre in terms of storylines, thought provoking themes and female characters who are a force to be reckoned with in their own right.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Sisters in Crime (US) author, blogger and current Sisters in Crime board member Barbara Fister issued book bloggers the challenge of writing about women’s contribution to crime fiction. There are three levels of the challenge and I’m aiming for the expert level which requires me to write ten blog posts about works of crime fiction by a woman author and, for each, mention three similar women authors whose works I would recommend.  Though I am taking Barbara at her word and using the “whenever” deadline as a concrete goal, so it may take me a while to do all ten posts. And it turns out I might find it hard to stick to recommending just 4 authors per post. Even if you only occasionally blog about crime fiction why not join in the challenge and help celebrate the women who write it?

This entry was posted in Barbara Fister, list, Marele Day (Aus), memes and challenges, Sara Paretsky, Sarah Dunant, Sue Grafton. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Sisters in Crime Challenge Post #1: The PI novel

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Bernadette – An excellent post! Thanks for helping highlight some of the really fine female PIs out there.


  2. tasbooklover says:

    Loved the post Bernadette. I’ve read all the Sue Grafton books and will keep my eyes open for the other authors you have mentioned. Not sure I’ll have the time to compete in the challenge, but I will look forward to reading your reviews with interest.


  3. shelleyrae@ Book'd Out says:

    Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky are also two of my favourite ‘women PI’ novels – others include Marcia Muller, Linda Barnes and Lauren Laurano


  4. Kathy D. says:

    V.I. Warshawski is my favorite woman p.i. She just is. No on compares to her–who else fell into the Chicago Canal? Who else goes after every bad guy herself? Who else is musical, loves dogs, hangs out at a saloon, and is still a fearless detective? She is. I am glad you wrote about her Bernadette. Now I don’t have to. I also am very fond of Kinsey Millhone and Sharon McCone; the latter detective I’ve read about all exploits. She’s also very independent, fearless, smart, and adventurous. I’d say that Paretsky takes up social issues because she thinks politically and puts issues in her books because they loom so large over here in the States. Happenings around Patriot Act, freedom of speech, McCarthism and the blacklist, police brutality in Chicago, garment sweatshops in her own town, etc. They all exist right here and in the Windy City. The Chicago police brutality coverup became a national news story for quite a while. Anyway, I think everything Paretsky writes is fine, including her essays on freedom of speech, etc. I trust her writing and her scruples and principles. This will take a real job to figure out more. .


  5. Kathy D. says:

    I forgot to mention L.R. (Lorelai Rose) Wright, a Canadian writer, who wrote a series about Karl Allberg, a police inspector on W. British Columbia cast. j


  6. A very worthy challenge, but I won´t stretch myself (too) thin by committing to more this year.

    I was also ever so happy when I found Kinsey Millhone, but the funny thing is that the series was recommended to me by one of my husband´s fellow students who told me that Grafton ´killed´ her ex-husband in the first one to get even. Of course I just couldn´t resist that one.


  7. I love both Kinsey and Vic – I’m collecting the whole Kinsey series so I can read them from A to U in one swoop. I think Paretsky’s writing is a little better and the books feel less like they are in a series somehow so I have been happier to dip in and out.
    I will definitely be checking out the authors you have recommended – and have you tried Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series? Stephanie is a bond collector rather than a PI but she ends up solving mysteries just the same.


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