Sexy, moral and packing a pistol

Sara Paretsky, the creator of the best-selling feminist detective VI (Victoria) Warshawski, describes how she came to create her feisty heroine
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The Independent Online
To grow up white in America in the 1950s was to enjoy education, housing, food, and safety in a measure not accessible to much of the rest of the world. I am well aware that I speak from a position of considerable privilege.

At the same time, I speak after years of struggle to find a voice. In that distant Eden we little girls knew we were destined to be mommies. We didn't worry about careers. Those of us planning a university education knew we were studying not for our own benefit, but to make us better wives and mothers (indeed, when Yale University first opened its doors to women in 1965, its president assured horrified alums that Yale's sole aim was to prepare women to become better wives and mothers by giving them the best education America could provide).

When I was a child, while boys planned lives as firefighters or cowboys, we girls dreamed of our weddings. When Roxanne Farrell "had to get married" in our sophomore year of high school, to us the most tawdry part was that she bought her trousseau at Woolworth's. Good girls who waited until they graduated from high school or college bought fancy bridalwear at the Plaza in Kansas City.

The books we read supported the idea of marriage as our only real goal. That was certainly the important message in that most enduring children's book, Little Women. At the end of Little Women, Jo, who is rebellious and ambitious in the early part of the book, is married. The mother of two small sons, she is running a boy's boarding school in Aunt March's old home and renounces her adolescent dream of becoming a great writer. She says to Marmee and her sisters:

"The life I wanted then seems selfish, lonely, and cold to me now. I haven't given up the hope that I may write a good book yet, but I can wait..."

In Jo March, the rebellious female is tamed and turned into a servant of the male - a reflection of Louisa May Alcott's own life, spent in an unhappy servitude to her father.

Crime fiction throughout much of this century supported the values of America's golden age. Good girls were chaste, bad girls were not. Chaste girls could not act effectively. Unchaste girls could, but were only able to commit evil deeds.

Notable 20th century heroines include Carmen Sternwood of The Big Sleep. The first time Carmen sees Philip Marlowe, in the hallway of her father's house, she engages in a little sexual byplay.

Marlowe tells us:

[S]he turned her body slowly and lithely, without lifting her feet. Her hands dropped limp at her sides. She tilted herself towards me on her toes. She fell straight back into my arms. I had to catch her or let her crack her head on the tessellated floor. I caught her under her arms and she went rubber-legged on me instantly. I had to hold her close to hold her up. When her head was against my chest she screwed it around and giggled at me.

Don't try this manoeuvre at home without adult supervision - or a good chiropractor.

All through this century, indeed, throughout the millennia, imaginary women have been using their bodies to try to make good boys do bad things, but - as Marlowe was in The Big Sleep - the heroes have been too strong for them.

From my first reading of American hard-boiled novels in my early twenties I knew I wanted to create a female detective who turned the tables on these negative images of women. But I was still living then in the world of daydreams. I could imagine myself with a finished book in print, but I couldn't imagine myself actually writing it.

It wasn't until I was in my early thirties, working as a manager for CNA Insurance, that I actually sat down to turn the stories I told in my head into what you see in print. When I started work on my first book, Indemnity Only, it was with the definite goal of creating a female detective who was a person, not an angel or a monster. But I wasn't thinking of what it means to be a woman hero in a positive way. I knew what I didn't want my detective to be, but not what she should be. As a result, I put her into the mainstream of the hard-boiled form - orphaned, with a Smith & Wesson, drinking whisky - instead of thinking about what special role a woman detective might play.

The one aspect of my detective I was thinking about consciously was her sexuality and the role of sex in my stories. Serial killers who torture women or children, rapists who prey on women and children, play an enormous - and enormously titillating - role in today's fiction. I vowed not to use sex to exploit my characters - or readers. I also wanted my hero, V I , to be a sexual being and a moral person at the same time. Too often the unmarried career woman in the modern mystery has depraved sexual appetites and has to die. In other cases, she may not be depraved but her appetites take a lot of satiation.

V I's emotional involvements do sometimes cloud her judgements. That is a fact of life for men and women both. V I does have lovers, but her sexuality does not prohibit her from making clear moral judgements and acting on them.

For women to find a voice, a voice telling them that they may have adventures, that action is a woman's appropriate sphere, has been the difficult task of the last several centuries. This barrage of imagery urging us to silence - indeed, suggesting that rape and dismemberment are appropriate responses to women who speak - is difficult to overcome.

In my own case, growing up under the demands of angry parents who sought to keep me in isolation, to denigrate my abilities, to make me the nursery maid and housekeeper for their sons, the effort to find and sustain a voice has been exhausting.

For me the true heroes are those who speak, more than those who act, those who can speak above the silencing clangour. My own heroine, V I is a woman of action. But her primary role is to speak. She says those things which I - which many women - are not strong enough to say for ourselves. That is why she can grow older, unlike most fictional detectives - because her success depends not so much on what she does, but on her willingness to put into words things that most people would rather remained unspoken.

I am myself not heroic. I get the shakes when I have to face angry or disapproving people. I find it hard to say "no" to people when they demand of me that which I don't wish to do. Too often I've been bullied out of supporting people or ideas that are important to me.

But my heroine has a voice. V I grew up in poverty and her adult finances are always precarious. She must overcome serious obstacles in her work. She possesses no amazing well of skills in dancing, horsemanship, fencing or diving to draw on. She speaks Italian because her mother was a poor immigrant, not because her wealthy family gave her private tutors and sent her to Europe for study. V I does drive a sporty red roadster, but she has trouble keeping up the payments, and she often comes home to a dirty apartment, to find an empty larder or rotting food.

In the years since my first book appeared, we have seen enormous changes in the mystery. Whereas it took me almost a year to find a publisher willing to take a chance on a woman detective in America's third largest city, we now have so many books with women heroes that I can't keep track of them all. Women now routinely review books in places like The New York Times, and our books are routinely reviewed. In 1982 it was still rare for high-prestige publications to look at works by women.

At the same time, books and movies still all too often look at women only in the tired old ways: In the last 10 or 15 years, as women's voices have grown stronger, the punishment of active women has also increased - at least in fiction. As a nod to the times imaginary women may have careers, but career women are deranged, with perverse sexual appetites, as Alix Forrest was in Fatal Attraction, or Carolyn Polhemus in Presumed Innocent. They may have to be brutalised or have to be rescued by the hero from rape.

When I was a teenager, The Feminine Mystique was a national bestseller. Today, hordes of young American women are buying a book called The Rules, which tells them how to return to the constricting society of my own childhood.

It makes me fretful, anxious to be standing close to my own half-century mark and see that my granddaughter is growing up in a world that still does not grant full humanity to women. I think of the great difficulty with which I came to a writing voice, the difficulty with which I maintain that voice, and wonder when it will become routine for a little girl to grow up with the sense that her "destiny" lies in words.

Twenty six hundred years ago, the poet Sappho - who saw the goddess descend from the heavens in a chariot drawn by sparrows - wrote:

Although they are

Only breath, words

Which I command

Are immortal.

My words do not come from me with the ease of breath: they are rather like water squeezed hardly from a rock. The sparrows outside my window don't bring me goddesses in chariots (although I keep hoping). They are hard-scrabbling urban birds, trying to stay alive in a world that's rough on small creatures, and on poets.

A few years ago a group of women came to a public event I did in Chicago. They introduced themselves to me afterwards as wives of out-of-work steelworkers. With the death of the mills on Chicago's south side, some of their husbands had been unemployed for five years or more; these women worked two jobs, as waitresses or check-out clerks, to keep food on the table and a roof overhead. They told me they had not read a book since leaving high school until someone told them V I came from their neighbourhood. They came to my lecture to tell me that the blue-collar girl detective helped them get through this very difficult hand that life had dealt them.

So although my words are only water squeezed from a rock, I hope that they may bridge a gap, help us all return to that time when girl poets as well as boys can grow up with the knowledge that their destiny lies in words.

The writer is a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford University. The above is an excerpt from a recent lecture.