Sara Paretsky Ed., A Woman’s Eye (1991)

A while ago, Dorothy asked in reference to Cornell Woolrich’s Black Angel:

I’m curious if anybody knows any other examples that have a female narrator. She’s not a very emotive narrator, by any means, but there is a vulnerability and openness to the voice that I haven’t found elsewhere. It didn’t feel very “noir” to me for those reasons, and I began to wonder if part of what it means to be “noir” is to be from a male point of view.

I’d hoped this collection would answer the question, because these 21 short stories are written by 21 female mystery writers. The answer is mixed, because of the genre convention (writers mostly introduce sassy female sleuths or policewomen with personal issues, so it ended up being a bit repetitive), and the short story form, which doesn’t allow for too complex plots.

At first sight, there aren’t obvious differences between these stories and those written by their male colleagues. In some stories even, written in the first person, I got confused about the gender of the sleuth and I thought “she” was a “he”. Of course I can’t know how male contributors would have written on the same subjects, but I can see a social drift to these stories, where gangs, homeless people, domestic violence are seen through women’s eyes, and a more compassionate feeling towards victims than traditional noir stories with a cynical Marlowe, for example.

Some stories are influenced by gender studies themselves, like Amanda Cross, Murder without a Text: an academic specialized in gender studies is accused of murdering one of her students who’d criticized her for being too conservative and not daring enough. The teacher is challenged by her students who point-blank reject academic texts. “All history, all previously published research, was lies. They would talk to real sex-workers, real homeless women, real victims of botched abortions […] When I suggested some academic research, they positively snorted […] They spoke about early feminists, like me, as though we were a bunch of co-opted creeps […] they never talked to me or asked me anything […] It was the kind of rudeness that is close to rape. Or murder”. I didn’t know that gender studies debates could be that heated, but apparently, as a critical study from University of Chicago has it, it has some degree of reality. The story, unfortunately, ends up in a totally unbelievable and hurried resolution (probably due to format constraint).

One particular story, Barbara Wilson’s Theft of the Poet, is a tongue-in-cheek satire of feminist literary criticism, that alludes to Sylvia Platt’s stardom: an American female poet who killed herself in the British countryside, the poet’s writer husband who tries to take advantage from his former wife’s aura, and the funny proposition that the dead poet’s relics should be sent to women studies conferences overseas.

Perhaps the most moving story is the very first one, Lucky Dip by Liza Cody, where the hero is a homeless teenage girl who survives in the streets of New York by being tough, unsentimental and savvy about the dangerous world around her. When a rich white guy is found dead (and robbed naked) near the slum she hides in, it’s both a terrible threat for her and an opportunity for the girl to get out of the streets. I can’t be judge of that but I thought the story very realistic and daring, far from the usual conventions of the noir genre, yet very noir in its own original way.


5 thoughts on “Sara Paretsky Ed., A Woman’s Eye (1991)

  1. I don’t have a whole lot of experience with mystery or detective short stories; it seems like it might be a hard genre to work with, since there is a lot the author has to accomplish in a short space. I’m hoping to read some Sara Paretsky soon — I’m curious about her!

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