Down these mean streets the dames have taken over

Roger Dobson investigates the rise of fictional female private eyes, now outgunning male rivals
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The Independent Online
Top brains have been called in to solve The Strange Case of the Disappearing Male Detective. Spillane and Marlowe are out of favour, Lew Archer is fast disappearing, and other star names are heading for the Big Sleep, all apparently victims of an inability to attract new customers.

Business is all going to a new breed of private eye: the feminist sleuth, the female gumshoe. The private-eye genre, once dominated by gum-chewing, cigarette-smoking, hard-drinking men whose one-liners were as sharp as their suits, has been hijacked by the broads.

According to Professor Stephen Knight, who has been given a British Council grant to investigate the rise of the likes of V I Warshawski and Kinsey Milhone and the fall from grace of the Marlowes and Spillanes, there are now more than 100 authors of feminist crime fiction. There is also a burgeoning sub genre of lesbian private eyes such as Aussie Carole Ashton, who is described as being more glamorous than Sydney Harbour, and Emma Victor.

And for the first time fictional male sleuths are playing second fiddle to female private eyes, both in sheer numbers and, more importantly, in book sales.

"There has been a massive explosion in feminist crime writing in the last 10 years and there is a very large audience of people who find it very interesting to read about these slightly tough but distinctly female figures," said Professor Knight, Professor of English at the University of Wales, Cardiff, and an expert on the crime thriller.

"It is something that just happened, like the Aga Sagas. Someone put a character out, and women liked it and bought it. They now outnumber male private eyes in sales and publishers realise how much these characters are liked and every publisher wants their own woman private eye. We should remember that, after all, two-thirds of bookbuyers are women."

He says the new women gumshoes have various things in common. "They are all independent and live in a city, and not one of them is married or has children. They almost all have a weak male friend, a kind of non- threatening, non-lover, non-father-figure, like a pretty pathetic poet in the downstairs flat or a computer nerd next door."

They are also widely popular: people queue for the new V I Warshawski as they once did for the latest Sherlock Holmes.

But some of these books are seen by feminists as mere fellow travellers with masculinism. The real feminist private eyes, they say, are the lesbians, and there are quite a few of them about now in Australia and the USA.

"However, quite a number of women scholars go further," says Professor Knight. "They really feel you can't have a feminist private eye because it is a masculine sort of thing to be alone and tough, and they argue that what is being done is a complete betrayal of feminist values."

But this wave of feminist private eyes is not the first. In 1856 Anne Rodway was at work as a lady detective in London, and in 1864 there was Mrs Gladden and in 1865 Mrs Paschal. "They seem to have died out after a time and the male detective came on the scene and stayed there until relatively recently with a few notable exceptions."

What tough-talking, macho Philip Marlowe would make of the takeover by the dames can only be imagined, but then, it seems, he may have an image problem of his own.

"There are those," confides Professor Knight, "who think Marlowe was half gay."

Tecs appeal

n Chicago-based V I Warshawski (as played by Kathleen Turner, left), is tough but attractive, streetwise and aware of politics. Has intermittent relationships with policemen, none fully satisfying. Just 40. (Author: Sara Paretsky.)

n Kinsey Milhone, a Californian eye described as short and bouncy. Very good at financial matters and accounts. Chases about in cars a lot. (Author: Sue Grafton.)

n Hannah Wolfe, dark- haired, late thirties, not married, "more introspective and less active". London-based, "tends to be concerned with relationships and to identify with the victim. Very well written". (Author: Sara Dunant.)

n Anna Lee (left, as played by Imogen Stubbs), probably in her twenties, London-based, street-wise. (Author: Lisa Cody).

n Claudia Valentine. Tall and dark, tackles corruption in Sydney. (Author: Marele Day.)

n Kate Delafield. Police inspector. Plots deal with lesbian issues and anxieties of city life. Focuses on crimes against women and the weak. (Author: Catherine V Forrest.)

n Kate Brannigan. "Very much based in Manchester scene. Boyfriend a hopeless DJ-cum-computer nerd." (Author: Val McDermid.)

n Inspector Carole Ashton. A lesbian, "probably in her late thirties, but would never admit to being 40". (Author: Clare McNab.)