Women are no longer content to simply answer a PI's phone; as authors and as characters, they are challenging their male counterparts in the increasingly lucrative and competitive mystery market.
So what has accounted for the growing prominence of ladies in mystery fiction? Looking back to the days of Christie, Sayers and Allingham, Ruth Rendell offers the opinion that women "initially achieved fame in this area because it was a time when women were universally expected to be gentle and delicate-minded, so a woman writing about crime was an interesting anomaly." Women, believes Rendell, are naturally drawn to the crime genre. "It has simply become an area of fiction women adopt and excel at." It's the sense of humanity contributed by women to contemporary mystery fiction that Sue Grafton sees as key—"the hard-boiled PI was becoming a cliché with too many imitators. Women brought a fresh sensibility."
When Bantam executive editor Kate Miciak put together her first mystery list some 15 years ago, she remembers management being "baffled" at the fact that it was composed almost entirely of women—including Sue Grafton's "B" Is for Burglar and the debut of Elizabeth George. A feminist plot? Miciak was simply more interested in the psychology of crime than in the action, something she didn't find in many manuscripts from men. And women, says Jim Huang, editor of "The Drood Review," found success by "breaking the mold from which most mysteries came—the settings were different, the people were different and the concerns were different."
So Who's Leading the Pack?
Now that women writers are regularly duking it out with the guys for a place on the bestseller lists, has this new equality translated into booming sales and opened editors' doors, or is it still a man's world?
"We're equal opportunity crime fighters at Berkley Prime Crime," says senior executive editor Natalee Rosenstein, "with male and female authors and protagonists mixing it up with great success." At Dutton, editor-in-chief Brian Tart agrees that a balanced list is important, but cautions that it should never be created at the expense of quality. "We won't buy a mystery just because we want another female detective on our list or vice versa."
As for sales, allow Rue Morgue publisher Tom Enid to debunk the myth that the numbers were always dominated by the good old boys. "Most of the boys had a hell of a time making a living. Only a few writers from the '30s and '40s made it big—Hammett, Chandler, John D. Macdonald. Christie outsold them all." That said, Barrie Trinkle, Amazon.com's mysteries and thrillers editor, reports that while "male protagonists won the popularity contest this winter—the summer bestseller lists may belong to Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton and Kathy Reichs."
Mysterious Press editor-in-chief Sara Ann Freed sees gender barriers dropping for buyers. "I don't think women think gender when they buy books—or how do you account for the popularity of James Patterson, Michael Connelly, Robert Parker or Robert Crais?"
Voicing an opposing view is Enid, who holds firm to the belief that women readers are more gender oriented than men. "Many women will flat out refuse to read books written about or by a man—a sort of literary affirmative action. Men who shop in mystery bookstores are more likely to try a woman author than a woman is to try a man."
St. Martin's associate publisher John Cunningham doesn't want anyone to take offense, but he thinks publishers who try to make a correlation between an author or protagonist's gender and sales "are gonna be in big trouble. Good books sell. A well-conceived, -plotted and -written book by a male author will outsell a lesser book by a female author. And vice versa." A mantra echoed by Walker editor Michael Seidman: "I publish books, not sexes."
Women Who Began It All
Not surprisingly, many of the women credited as founding mothers of this new wave in publishing are still powerhouses in the genre, with each new book eagerly anticipated by fans and booksellers.
Sue Grafton's 16th Kinsey Millhone mystery, "P" Is for Peril (Putnam/Marian Wood), is due in June. Back in 1981, Wood bought "A" Is for Alibi on the basis of 60 pages and has never looked back. "Sue is writing about the real tension that's going on between men and women in precinct houses and in actual investigative work. It's not Nancy Drew time anymore." Sara Paretsky's seminal female PI, V.I. Warshawski, makes her 10th appearance in Total Recall (Delacorte, Sept.)—and "she's as tough as she ever was," says Miciak.
England's grande dames (actually baronesses) of mystery, Ruth Rendell and P.D. James, are back as well—each with a twist. Rendell's Piranha to Scurfy and Other Stories (Crown) is a collection of seven stories and two novellas—including one featuring a lonely middle-aged man whose life is devoted to criticizing newly published authors for errors he finds in their books. And can it be that Adam Dalgliesh is in love? So promises James's longtime editor Charles Elliott about Death in Holy Orders, out this month from Knopf. James will also be joining the Scribner Paperback Fiction list in April with the publication of the two Cordelia Gray mysteries, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and The Skull Beneath the Skin. Between April and November 2001, nine additional titles will be published. "Scribner Paperback Fiction does very few mysteries, so this is an especially exciting project for us," says Marcia Burch, publicity director for trade paperbacks.
Tough Girls with Heart
While the battle to gain equal footing for women authors may have been a tough one, the female characters in mystery fiction have also come a long way from the genteel days of Miss Marple. The lives of women in mysteries have had to keep pace with the changing role of women. Simply being tough is no longer enough.
"I think that the successful female protagonists now reflect a more realistic view of the contemporary woman," says Berkley's Rosenstein. She cities by way of example Marcia Simpson's Sound Tracks (May) and her fishing boat captain/sleuth Liza Romero. "She's an incredibly independent woman in a very independent environment yet is not afraid to express her vulnerability and even tenderness." It was the contrast between the tough investigator Emma Price and the turmoil of her private life—she's deserted by her husband, finds out she's pregnant and discovers that the nanny has disappeared—that motivated HarperCollins executive editor Robert Jones to buy his first ever mystery title—Naomi Rand's The One That Got Away (July). Cochise County, Ariz., sheriff Joanna Brady faces similar struggles in J.A. Jance's Paradise Lost (Morrow, Sept.). "What sets Joanna apart," explains executive editor Trish Grader, "is that she is just as concerned with being a good mother and a patient daughter as she is with being a good sheriff."
That doesn't mean that these women sleuths can't hold their own with the tough guys. At Simon & Schuster, senior editor Marysue Rucci is talking about forensic psychiatrist Dr. Sylvia Strange when she says, "She could give Clarice Starling a run for her money." This forensic psychiatrist, the creation of author Sarah Lovett who debuted in 1995's Dangerous Attachment, returns this month in Dantes' Inferno. And fire-fighting may be as traditionally male as a job can get, but Suzanne Chazin has a female New York City fire marshal as her central character in The Fourth Angel (Putnam). Rue Morgue has brought back Juanita Sheridan's 1949 novel, The Chinese Chop, which, says Enid, puts to rest "the common misconception that strong, self-reliant, non-spinster or comic female sleuths didn't appear on the scene until the 1970s."
African-American women are stepping up to claim their share of the mystery market as well. LAPD detective Charlotte Justice returns in Stormy Weather (Norton, Aug.), and former Justice Department attorney Christopher Chambers introduces FBI Special Agent Angela Bivens in Sympathy for the Devil (Crown). "There aren't that many strong black female characters in the thriller and mystery world," says Crown executive editor Kristin Kiser, "and Angela, with her sass and courage, should take her place among classic crime fiction heroines." Barbara Neely's Blanche White is a maid turned sleuth, but that's not what intrigued associate editor Susan O'Connor—"Barbara redefines the meaning of an iron fist in a velvet glove." Blanche Passes Go is due in July from Penguin.
But just how far can women push the envelope? Author Martin J. Smith's alpha-female defense attorney Brenna Kennedy became "so domineering" that Smith seriously considered killing her off and going it alone with her live-in lover Jim Christensen—"she was treating him as an unequal partner and that's not a healthy position in which to place a main character. He was starting to come across as weak." But Smith reconsidered and in Straw Men (Jove), Jim saves Brenna's life, allowing Smith to "dramatically change the balance of power in the relationship."
On the Guy Side
Now that women are packing heat and sensitively dealing with marriage and motherhood, can there still be a place in buyers' hearts for a macho man with a gun and an attitude? "The classic tough guy PI will always have a warm seat at the end of the bar," says Amazon's Trinkle, "but in the contemporary mystery world it's as likely to be filled by Kinsey Millhone as Spenser."
Robert Parker's Boston PI Spenser has been an enduring character in American fiction for over 30 years, and Putnam senior editor Chris Pepe foresees no drop in his popularity. "A classic is a classic," says Pepe who describes the series as "essentially a western set in contemporary Boston. Spenser has a code of honor he follows and you can count on him not to let outside forces change him." Spenser's latest starring vehicle is Potshot, out last month (and marking its second week on our bestseller list). Simon & Schuster senior editor Chuck Adams also sees honor as a key to the popularity of tough guy detectives like James Lee Burke's Billy Bob Holland, who returns in July in Bitterroot. "These men have deep beliefs and they defend the little guy against the tyranny of those who do them evil."
"If you have a good old boy who can still take readers away on a fascinating, suspenseful, edgy murder," says Dutton's Tart, "then it's successful. I think men have learned to include women in their plots and to make these characters well-rounded and integral to the outcome rather than stereotypes. We don't shy away from a series with a tough detective protagonist like Michael Garrity's Kevin Kerney [who returns in July for number six, Under the Color of Law]." Freed at Mysterious Press believes that the hard-boiled PI may have a real future with younger readers looking for a tougher mystery. She notes that Richard Stark's cold-blooded thief, Parker (Firebreak, Nov.), is just the sort of "tough, uncompromising character they see on TV. Younger readers don't see crime and murder as it's depicted in Murder, She Wrote—they like the gritty details." Little, Brown hit the mean streets with two of mystery's bestselling tough guys. George Pelecanos and his ex-cop-turned-PI Derek Strange return in Right As Rain and Michael Connelly teams LAPD detective Harry Bosch with Blood Work's Terry McCaleb in A Darkness More Than Night.
In the midst of this testosterone storm, could there be a place for a cowardly PI? For 14 novels now, Parnell Hall's New York PI Stanley Hastings has, in the words of publisher and bookseller Otto Penzler, "been terrified of being hit, much less killed." The pusillanimous fellow returns in July in what seems the aptly titled Cozy (Carroll & Graf/Otto Penzler).
But not everyone sees a vacant seat at the bar for the hard-drinking PI. "There's a place, but it doesn't seem to be for us," says Morrow/Avon senior editor Jennifer Fisher. "There are always going to be the Sam Spade-type characters, but the question is whether they can sustain serious sales that build over time. Our publishing program doesn't seem to lend itself to really doing well with that sort of mystery."
Real Men—by Real Women
With women getting equal time on the firing range, no one should be surprised that they are now creating their own guys with attitude. "I don't think it's difficult," says Doubleday associate editor Deborah Cowell, "for an uninhibited woman to write in the voice of a tough guy." She points to the publisher's very own uninhibited woman who's doing just that: Mo Hayder (a former barmaid, security guard and hostess in a Tokyo nightclub) brings back Detective Inspector Jack Caffrey in The Treatment (Aug.).
Magdalen Nabb's Marshal Salvatore Guarnaccia has been fighting crime in Florence for 10 books; the latest, Property ofBlood, is coming in September from Soho Press. And when Elizabeth Gunn first considered writing a male protagonist, she remembers "squirming in my chair. But after I wrote one paragraph as detective Jake Hines, something magical clicked into place and I've never looked back. He's obviously my alter ego." Readers can meet up with Jake again in June in Walker's Six-Pound Walleye.
It Takes Two
Ever since Nora Charles helped Nick toss back a shaker of martinis before they revealed who done it, one of the most popular themes in mystery publishing has been men and women working together to solve a murder. Today, these teams run the gamut from married couples to PI partners—all doing battle with real-life problems readers can readily identify with.
The romance of Detective Inspector Duncan Kincaid and his partner, Sergeant Gemma James, may be in for a bad patch in Deborah Crombie's A Finer End (Bantam, May), as Gemma receives a promotion that may mean the end of their partnership on the force.
A critical development of a different stripe befalls Jill McGowan's Detective Inspectors Lloyd and Hill, who must contend with encroaching parenthood while solving their 11th mystery (Scene of the Crime, Ballantine, Apr.). "I think it will certainly add real texture and dimension to the relationship," says executive editor Joe Blades, who admits to not having a clue if readers will expect a conventional wrap-up to this newest twist.
It's taken 11 books, but Max Allan Collins has finally married Nathan Heller to girlfriend Peggy in Angel in Black (NAL). "It's surprising to see a tough guy detective in the Sam Spade mold get married," says NAL editor Genny Ostertag, "since it's something against type. Peggy also finds out she's pregnant and doesn't want to keep the baby because of her acting career—a conflict that further heightens the battle of the sexes." Wedding bells have been chiming at Intrigue Press, too, where Steve Brewer tied the knot for PI Bubba Mabry and girlfriend Felicia Quattlebaum in Crazy Love, and Connie Shelton—believing that "readers begin to fidget when a couple dates for years and never takes the next step"—has wed Charlie Parker to Drake Langston in time for their sixth outing, Honeymoons Can Be Murder .
Marriage is tough enough, but toss in a body or two and you've got real problems. Elizabeth Peters makes crime a family affair in Lord of the Silent (Morrow, May), as Amelia Peabody and her husband, Emerson, team up with their son Ramses and his new wife, Nefret. Intrigue Press launches a new husband-wife team in Sophie Dunbar's Fashion Victims, as writer Ava and director Frank Bernstein hunt for a murderer in Tinsel Town. Bow Street Superintendent Thomas Pitt and his wife, Charlotte, continue to contend not just with crime, but with social convention in Anne Perry's The Whitechapel Conspiracy (Ballantine). According to Blades, "One of the most intriguing aspects of this series is how Charlotte challenges society's attitudes about the proper role of a Victorian wife in the late 1880s."
Not all partnerships, however, have romance in their future. Take Father John O'Malley and Arapaho lawyer Vicky Holden, who once again bring the bad guys to justice in Thunder Keeper (Berkley Prime Crime, Sept.). "Margaret Coel has always handled their relationship with extreme grace and sophistication," says executive editor Tom Colgan. "She realizes the challenge of celibacy is not avoiding temptation but resisting it." And the complex, platonic and perennially bestselling partnership of Detective Inspector Lynley and Detective Barbara Havers continues in Elizabeth George's A Traitor to Memory (Bantam, July).
Amidst this ongoing "battle of the sexes" there's also been some switching of sexual preference—in terms of characters. James Patterson has left tough guy PI Alex Cross behind to introduce a new series featuring not one but four gutsy heroines in Little, Brown's 1st to Die. Stuart Woods has a second date with Holly Barker, a smalltown Florida police chief, in Orchid Blues (Putnam, Oct.). Senior editor David Highfill tells PW that Woods hasn't found his new female sleuth "much of a departure. Holly is as intelligent and take-charge and as capable as his PI Stone Barrington. I don't think there's pressure on male writers to come up with 'tough' women characters. I think it's just a way for them to explore a different point of view and writers—and publishers, too—are always looking for a new angle, the new fresh voice."
Jan Burke has put the spotlight on reporter Irene Kelly's detective husband, Frank, in Flight, the pair's seventh outing. Interestingly, Rucci at Simon & Schuster reports that the impetus for the change was Frank being voted "male mystery character you'd most want to date" by readers of Romantic Times. And while Boston Teran vows that the mother-daughter team of Dee and Shay Storey will make a one-time-only appearance in Never Count Out the Dead (St. Martin's Minotaur, May), does he remember these women are armed and may demand a comeback?
There's also been some gender-switching on the publisher side. Following the success of Naked Came the Manatee, a serial mystery penned almost entirely by male authors, St. Martin's Minotaur decided a feminine counterpart was in order. This time, the 16 authors (all female) are heavy hitters from the worlds of both mystery and romance. "We wanted Naked Came the Phoenix [Aug.]," says Cunningham, "to not only build on the mystery audience but to stretch the boundary by including authors who would bring in the crossover romance reader."
Are the Men Losing Ground?
The question of late has become not "can women make it in mysteries," but is so much attention being given to female writers and characters that men are being overshadowed?
"I can hear the Robert Bly drums beating in the background, underlining the message of the 'oppressed' male," says Cunningham at St. Martin's. "I just think guys (including PIs) can't get away with their crap anymore. There is an increasing emphasis on writers who present well-rounded, three-dimensional characters rather than the stereotypical bags of clichés presented by third-rate Chandler imitators."
Dutton's Tart believes that men are holding their own, citing the continuing success of Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane as well as the attention that George Pelecanos and Dutton's Michael Garrity have been receiving. That said, he also notes that female writers seem to be taking the lead, a trend he sees as a reflection of the readership of mysteries. Bantam's Miciak believes that we are now at a point where "the boys and girls are equal. The good news is that the glass ceiling has shattered. Now it's all about the story and how compellingly it's told."
But not everyone agrees. "Having for years missed the opportunity to sell books with strong female characters," says "Drood Review" editor Huang, "publishers have now overcompensated, throwing all their energy and resources into publishing these women. Women deserve their success, but too many of even the best male writers aren't getting a chance to reach their audience."
One thing everyone can agree on is that women now have a solid and significant presence in mystery publishing—a long way from the days when Ruth Rendell's father professed he never read books written by women. Says the noted author, "He can't have been alone among men in this boast, and, if it has changed now, how can one be anything but glad of it?"
As Miciak puts it, "Mysteries have now expanded out of the box of 'men write this' and 'women write that.'" Now there is something for everyone and the genre has gotten richer and readership keeps expanding." And with men and women both involved as editors, authors and readers, "it's not a battle of the sexes," says Fisher at Morrow/Avon, "so much as a battle for the sexes—and that's a fight we're taking on."