What we’ve come to call the “hard-boiled” tradition in crime fiction, as it’s lovingly explored and chronicled here in Crime Wave Magazine, originated in the American pulps of the 1920s, and flourished through the rise of the paperbacks in the 1950s. (As I’m using the term “hard-boiled” here, it denotes crime fiction that involves a significantly greater component of violent or potentially violent action than the traditional mystery, is less focused on cerebral deduction, and may not involve the solution to a mystery or end with the apprehension of the culprit at all; it would include the whole noir tradition, but doesn’t always embody the moral cynicism of classic noir.) From this era, which fans often think of as this sub-genre’s Golden Age, we derive a number of archetypal figures: the smart-aleck, hard-living male gumshoe who’s handy with fists and gun; the dastardly male villain who’s smart, physically formidable (or has formidable types working for him) and wholly unscrupulous; the calculating, sinister femme fatale who uses sexual seduction to bend hapless males to her evil purposes, and who’s no more scrupulous than her male fellow villains; the cretinous police detective/D.A./police commissioner who hates P.I.’s on general principles; the traditional Damsel in Distress; and the detective’s patient and capable female secretary, who handles the paper-worky end of the business. But one sort of character was glaringly absent from this roster: any sort of female figure who could wield fists or gun in defense of justice and the innocent. Raymond Chandler’s famous comment about the detective who must go down the mean streets without being mean, tarnished or afraid envisions strictly the hero, not the heroine. (The determined exclusion of women from violent action roles tended to apply even to the villainesses; they might not hesitate to shoot somebody to death but, like Bridget O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon, they do that sort of dirty work only by stealth and surprise, to unsuspecting victims who have no chance for a fair fight.)
Among the changes this tradition has seen in the last fifty years, though, has been the rise of the action heroine in crime fiction. Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise is arguably the first of these, originating in 1963 as a comic-strip character, with the first of a series of novels appearing in 1965. (This series is often classified as espionage fiction, since Modesty at times assists the British intelligence agency; but her background is in the underworld –she ran a Tangier-based crime syndicate before turning her back on the lawless life—and the plots can involve other things besides spy capers. I’d contend that the line, if any, that divides this literature from crime fiction is very thin.) Perhaps inspired by the considerable popularity of the 1976-1981 TV show Charlie’s Angels, with its lady detectives, female P.I.s began to turn up in the crime literature of the 1980s. Sue Grafton is usually credited with starting this trend in her series-opener A Is for Alibi (1982), featuring woman sleuth Kinsey Milhone; the author and the series went on to garner numerous genre awards. The trend didn’t end there, so by now Kinsey has numerous sisters in the hard-boiled mystery field: Linda Barnes’ Boston-based Carlotta Carlyle, Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone, who works out of San Francisco, and Chicago private investigator V. I. Warshawski, created by Sara Paretsky, are among the best known and most popular. We can probably exclude Janet Evanovich’s Jersey girl Stephanie Plum from this list –she’s a bounty huntress whose cars tend to get blown up in the course of her work; but though she packs a gun, she still hasn’t learned to use it after 22 novels and novellas, and still refuses to learn any self-defense techniques. That series is really oriented more to humor than serious action. All of the other women mentioned here, though, are female equivalents of the male P.I.s in this tradition, at least insofar as their capacity for the hard-boiled type of detective work is concerned; they can handle the rough stuff, and are capable of using lethal force if they have to.
As women have entered the world of fictional (and real-life) private investigation in the later 20th century, they also began to join real-life police forces in the same period, and some eventually have become full-fledged police detectives. These ladies, too, have begun to have their counterparts in the hard-boiled crime fiction field. Coupled with the increasing recognition by authors in this field that the police can actually be competent and professional, rather than just the traditional inept foils for the independent P.I. hero, you have the potential for police officers of both genders to be serious heroic figures in the action mold. Eve Dallas, the creation of “J. D. Robb” (which is actually a pen name used by Nora Roberts) is probably the genre’s foremost policewoman heroine. But there are others, which include J. A. Konrath’s Lt. Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels, and April Smith’s FBI Special Agent Ana Grey. Genre authors have branched out the roles of action females in crime fiction in other ways as well. If you see espionage fiction with a lot of violent action as a natural subset of this tradition, Greg Rucka’s Queen and Country series featuring British spy Tara Chace, who started her career in comic books but, like Modesty Blaise, eventually transitioned to the regular novel, in her case beginning with A Gentleman’s Game (2004), is a good example. Hard-boiled crime writing has also seen some reinterpretation of females on the other side of the law. Characters such as John Sandford’s hit woman Clara Rinker (who appears in two of his Lucas Davenport series novels, Certain Prey and Mortal Prey) aren’t simplistic, one-dimensionally bad villains; they have layers of moral complexity, underneath which they may not be wholly evil at all --though, obviously, they’ve got a dark side, to varying degrees. And they may be as capable of formidable action roles as their more upright sisters.
This is a genre trend that shows no sign of abating; indeed, it’s increased markedly since its beginnings in the 80s. Contemporary crime writers like Kelley Armstrong with her Nadia Stafford series, Dennis Lehane (creator of the P.I. character Angie Gennaro), Concrete Pearl author Vincent Zandri, and British author Mark Cooper, creator of British intelligence agent Leah Bennett Hargraves, all are mining this territory, along with many others. My own short story collection, The Smoking Gun Sisterhood, with action heroines of several of these (and a few other) types, is a contribution to the same trend, albeit a modest one. But what’s the social significance of the trend?
Some critics, of course, would have it that the significance is negative: that women shouldn’t be filling this kind of role anyway, and that these kinds of fictional depictions are just exploitative money-makers designed to appeal to unhealthy male fantasies. (Though why it’s unwholesome for males to admire strong, capable females, and wholesome to admire fragile and helpless ones, has never been satisfactorily explained.) No doubt, some of this fiction does come from writers who simply want to ride a trend and make money. But trends start from somewhere, and they fulfill certain reader needs and express certain values. To me, it seems like the rise of the action heroine in this genre (as in other fictional genres in the same time period) reflects a growing awareness that women as a group have the same range of capabilities and possibilities as males –that their biological gender isn’t an absolute determiner of their roles in life. In that sense, it’s a reflection of the growing influence of the woman’s movement that began in the 60s, but it’s not about male-bashing; it’s about the recognition that some women can do the same jobs that some men do, and if they have the aptitude and the willingness, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t. As noted above, the entry of women into these roles in fiction has reflected their entry into similar roles in the real world; and one of the major arguments of hard-boiled crime fiction’s apologia has always been that it’s “realistic,” a gritty mirror of the way things actually are. (And that way has changed a lot since the noir “Golden Age!”) Related to this, it reflects an increasing awareness that if a willingness to use force for good purposes doesn’t make a male bad, it doesn’t automatically make a woman “bad” either; a recognition that there’s only one moral standard of behavior, not two different ones depending on which gender is doing something. I’d argue that these are positive changes; and that a type of fiction that reflects and promotes them, in its own small way, is doing something socially constructive. So, readers, let’s give these lady knights their propers, as they patrol the mean streets untarnished and unafraid!