Murder, she writes
With half of the mysteries each year written by women, the macho world of crime fiction is rapidly filling up with not-so-hard-boiled female detectives.
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"Readers tell me my protagonist's faith has brought them closer to their own faith," she says. She also tackles social issues, such as at-risk teens, spouse abuse, elder abuse, and date rape.Skip to next paragraph
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Hellmann describes another sub-genre, the chick-lit mystery, as "Prada-type girls who happen to solve mysteries when they're not working in their wonderful Manhattan jobs."
By contrast, Elaine Viets's "Dead-End Jobs" series is grounded in realism. Her protagonist, Helen Hawthorne, holds a different minimum-wage job in each book. To research "Dying to Call You," Ms. Viets worked as a telemarketer. For the forthcoming "Murder With Reservations," she worked as a hotel maid, making 34 beds a day.
"The hard-boiled male is often the critical darling," says Viets. "But I believe that the hard-boiled thriller is old-fashioned now. The really difficult books are the books about everyday relationships, about maintaining a job, maintaining a family. It's easy to make a thriller interesting. It's much harder to keep people interested in ordinary life, yet women have that skill to keep people reading for 300 pages. Women don't always write grand books, big thrillers. But they do the Jane Austen kind of book – the book about society."
Despite progress, women who write whodunits still have a few real-life mysteries to solve. One could be called The Case of the Changing Publishing Industry.
Now that American publishers have consolidated into six conglomerates, their emphasis is on blockbusters, says Barbara Peters, owner of the Poisoned Pen mystery book store in Scottsdale, Ariz.
"I used to hear authors talk about the quality of their work," she says. "Now it's the number of sales. It's produced a lot more anxiety. It's forcing a lot of authors whose numbers aren't satisfactory to reinvent themselves and adopt pseudonyms." Stores and editors, Ms. Maron explains, "are more willing to gamble on a new name than to help an older name grow."
Then there is The Case of the Glass Ceiling.
Hellmann calls this the "thorniest issue we are dealing with." Male authors tend to get higher advances than women. Publishers also invest more marketing dollars in men, although that is improving for women. Maron recalls a time when her publisher "wouldn't even give me a nickel to walk across the road." For publicity tours, she adds, "Four or five of us would pool our money for a rental car. Bookstore owners put us up on their couches."
Still, for the 3,000 members of Sisters in Crime, signs of progress are encouraging. In many major publications, male and female crime writers are receiving almost equal review space. And long gone are the days Mattes describes, when women mystery writers sometimes had to use male pen names and create male protagonists.
But some things haven't changed enough. In the early 1980s, Ms. Paretsky called attention to the growing use of graphic sadism against women in mysteries by men. Today, she says, "In terms of content, I'm not sure we've had an effect."
Noting that plots have gotten "more graphic, more explicit – explicit sex, explicit violence, explicit torture," Maron says, "The ante has just been upped and upped and upped, by men and some women, too."
Still, many writers are encouraged by better characterizations of women. "Forty years ago, when you had Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett writing, they had the dames with the legs that went on forever," Hellmann says. "Now women are much more three-dimensional, much more layered."
For all authors, perhaps the biggest challenge involves The Case of the Diminishing Readership. "There's one underlying need we have to address," Hellmann says. "That is nurturing the next generation of mystery readers. We used to say, 'All these kids are reading Harry Potter. They'll be the next generation of mystery readers.' But they're not. They stop reading as teenagers. They're lured by iPods, the Internet, MySpace, and games."
Explaining that this applies to all fiction, not just mysteries, Hellmann says, "We have to find ways to get people back to reading, period. We have to show the joy of sitting down with a good book and being transported into another world that touches you and challenges you."