Those were different times

Looking at the popular reception of some of these books back when they were published is kind of fun in a way because it sometimes shows them in a different light. We look at Mildred Pierce and see a hardworking woman doing what she needs to do to provide for her family, whereas reviewers at the time of the novel found the family dysfunction shocking and horrifying. We’re used to seeing imperfect families and troubled relationships these days, but maybe people didn’t talk about them in the 40s.

So I look at V.I. Warshawski and think it’s cool the way she’s tough and goes toe to toe with mobster henchmen, but it doesn’t strike me as revolutionary. I mean, Sarah Connor has been kicking ass for years now. But things have changed over the past thirty years. Back in the 80s, Sarah Connor was a little waitress damsel in distress to be saved by some white knight riding out of the future. By the 90s she was a tough fighter, but was regarded as a dangerous freak and kept locked up in an asylum. And just a few years ago she was covertly leading a fight to save the world. I come to Indemnity Only from that perspective.

But at the time the book was published, in the early 80s, there were no tough female private eyes. Women who solved mysteries were portrayed as amateur busybodies or meddling kids. And the advent of the hardboiled female detective was not entirely welcomed. Marilyn Stasio, writing in the New York Times in 1985, a few years after Indemnity Only, said:

The publishing industry at this point is skeptical about the broader appeal of these women who are detectives and private investigators. Those in the industry hold that most readers of hard-boiled fiction are men, and the trade does not see them racing to buy books written by and featuring women. They are not so sure that women want to read them either.

I guess they had enough appeal that Paretsky wasn’t a one-hit wonder, and wasn’t alone in what she was doing. But it wasn’t just the suits who were skeptical. Stasio quoted hardboiled author Lawrence Block:

”The hard-boiled private eye is a special figure in American mythology,” he says. ”It’s a staple of the myth that he should be a cynical loner, a man at odds with society and its values. That’s not something women normally relate to. Women aren’t cynical loners – that’s not how they like to work. It seems to me that if they want to go into the profession seriously, women writers will have to change the myth itself, instead of trying to fit themselves into it.”

It seems strange to me that someone could get away with making categorical statements like that and still be taken seriously. But the 80s were a different time, and it’s easy to forget how much people’s attitudes can change in a few decades.

Stasio, Marilyn. “Lady Gumshoes: Boiled Less Hard.” New York Times: A.1. Apr 28 1985. National Newspapers Core. Web. 17 Nov. 2012 .

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2 Responses to Those were different times

  1. Jim Groom says:

    Did I ever tell you how awesome you are Paul Bond?

    This post fits in quite nicely to many of the things we were talking about tonight, particularly the 3 waves of feminism over the 20th century and the questions that the third wave open up and in many ways speak directly to Block’s categorial essentialism about what it means to be a woman that is under attack from a cultural perspective that comes under attack. Warshawski seems both of and outside of the radical feminism of the 60s and 70s that was defined by middle-class white intellectuals which elides the questions of sexual orientation, race, class, etc, in the definiton of the movement. The variegated third wave in many ways breaks open that essentialism to some degree, and Warshawski might be understood as part of that: she’s an immigrant, working class heritage cum Private investigator who is at the same time very much a product of the mass produced and mediated middle class she identifies with. By contemporary standards Warshawski might be discounted as radical figure, but given she takes ownership of the role of hardboiled detective without becoming the definition of the cynical loner shows just how much a caricature that vision is. One of the things the students brought up again and again about Warshawski is how real she seems, and for me that rings quite true. She seems like a person, not a mythical icon of existentialist ennui. She is in and of her time, and Paretsky’s greatest accomplishment in this book, similar to Stephen King’s best stuff, is to draw the dramatically shifting culture of late capital and consumerism as she sees it. But not cynically, just truthfully.

    Talking about the 80s as a historical artifact tonight was very fun, I really want to teach an entire class called the 1980s—that would be very cool. And I think Dr. Garcia is on board 😉

    Also, as for Paretsky, the research group for this book has found little or no primary sources like book reviews, critical discussions, etc. I am wondering if this one might be a more widely un-researched and written about. If Warshawski is the first of her kind, and this is the first book in the series, then why the hell was there no Wikipedia article before #emoboiled?

    • phb256 says:

      I found a couple reviews for Indemnity Only, but they’re pretty thin, mostly just plot description. The group could try searching Google Scholar ( There’s a few articles in there, but they’re not all on the first page of hits. If UMW doesn’t give access to the articles, the students should be able to get them through interlibrary loan. Interlibrary loan for articles is usually pretty quick – sometimes they get emailed within 24 hours.

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