V.I. Warshawski and the Female Likability Problem

As the half-Italian, half-Polish daughter of a retired police officer, I was immediately curious about V.I. Warshawski on a personal level. But Vic is far from the hard-boiled female hero I was expecting (hoping for?): I was expecting more of a Jessica Jones type of character (“a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking mess of a woman”) but Vic likes her fine clothes and hot baths, enjoys a good meal and keeps herself in impeccable physical shape. She’s weirdly socially conservative and pro-cop for a private investigator. In short, she feels much less like a gritty subversive hard-boiled detective who just happens to be female and more like a suburban mom’s escapist daydream. I can’t imagine the readership for the V.I. Warshsawski novels overlapping with the readership for Philip Marlowe stories, or even the Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books).  There’s something, for lack of a better description, girly about V.I. Warshawski, despite her tough-gal act which to me is just a bit too contrived: just look at Paretsy’s “bio” for the character on her website. Yes, Vic drinks scotch whiskey neat and gets beaten up by thugs, but the narration surrounding these acts is painfully self-conscious: she practically boasts about her ability to talk-back to threatening men when it’s just dangerous enough to do so, and she always knows her limits when it comes to how much of that Jonnie Walker she should drink. Ultimately Vic is likable: for her flaws, she is respectful of her family upbringing, surprisingly maternal where she needs to be, financially and personally responsible, and kind more often than she is crass. For me, its this very likability that problematizes my viewing her as a gritty or hard-boiled detective. Vic is not an antihero, an unlikable loner with deep character flaws and recurrent trauma from a dysfunctional past; she doesn’t “dare” us to like her in spite of who she is, but assumes we will like her because she is a good person. For me, this taps into an old gendered problem of readership: an audience is much more likely to accept a flawed, unlikable male character than a female one. Since it feels like Paretsky is writing for middle class women in the 1980s, I certainly can’t blame her for not making V.I. “edgy” enough; it’s only in the past decade that we’ve seen real commercial success from flawed female antihero detectives like Jessica Jones and Lisbeth Salander—two realistic (?) female characters created by men.

Vic does seem to have one underlying flaw that isn’t mentioned explicitly in the text, or even really alluded to; I wonder if Paretsy is even consciously coding for it. V.I. seems to me to have some major body issues. At first I thought that Vic’s love of food was meant to be some kind of marker of self-acceptance, a note that she likes what she likes and doesn’t care of that’s attractive or not. But the detailing of food in this novel is almost obsessive—as obsessive as Vic’s workout routine and compulsion to stay in physical shape. She is constantly commenting on the clothing of others at inopportune moments (as in when she is being actively abducted from her apartment) and has no problem body shaming women for no real productive end—I can’t get out of my head the scene in chapter four where Vic comments on the “unlovely sag” in the secretary’s arms, a detail Vic can’t seem to stop fixating upon. It’s always a dangerous move to try to psychoanalyze literary characters, but I can’t stop wondering if this weird body fixation is meant to be V.I.’s issue or if it’s just one more reason why Sara Paretsy’s attempt at writing a gritty female character falls flat.

A Case of (Decadence, Emptiness, and) Identity

Will Norman’s assessment of Chandler’s style is a fascinating study that speaks not only to Chandler’s style, but which also raises questions about the nature of genre and periodization themselves. In reading about Chandler’s biographical details–particularly as set forth by Norman–I was struck by how much his “dates” overlap with Dorothy Sayers (he lived 1888-1959, she from 1893-1957) and how little their styles do. I sense this is rooted in more than their geographical distance and more in something more deeply philosophical: an understanding of the modern world taking shape around them, as well as an understanding of their recent past.

Norman seems to claim that Chandler’s fiction has the trappings of decadence, that Chandler’s sense of being “born half a century too late” fed into the quest for a particular aesthetic that was crystalized in a hollowness, an emptying out of meaning that came to define the author’s style. (751) I’ll admit that while reading these Chandler selections, I myself did not get a sense of the decadence I associate with the British fin-de-siècle tradition: if anything, that was much more apparent to me in Sayers’ work. To me, Peter Wimsey easily fits the image of a man holding onto an aristocratic, decadent past that seems to be transforming into something grotesquely modern before front of his eyes; Philip Marlowe seems embittered by the modern space he inhabits without any particular nostalgia for another time or place.  I imagine Norman would ascribe this interpretation to David Weir’s assertion that “in America, the cultural conditions that produced the possibility of decadence in Europe simply did not exist,” perhaps insisting that my very assumption that “American decadence” should look like English decadence is what prevents me from seeing said decadence in Chandler’s work. (756) But is it really fair to equate hollowness and emptiness with decadence? It seems to me that while the atmosphere that Chandler creates could look like decadence with its smoky rooms and pleasure-seeking characters, it is really something else entirely–that it is that very “emptiness” which prevents from being decadent. After all, in order to have decay or decline, one must start with some kind of substance. I don’t know that I find the explanation of a “temporal dysfunction that empties the past of significance and establishes a disorienting equivalence of late and early” enough to justify an existence of American decadence at all. (757)

All this being said, the lingering questions I have relate to choice of this particular genre for Chandler to work out his transatlantic identity, his own geographic and temporal tensions in forming his identity as a writer. Perhaps my real question is even larger: what draws writers to the particular genre of the detective story? There are clearly other subgenres of popular fiction at their disposal; what is it about the detective story–or, it seems to me– the figure of the detective himself that draws writers like Chandler to work out their understanding of the modern world through this form? Does the detective figure lend himself to a type of loneliness, a type of isolation due to his inherent suspicion of others, his obsession of following the facts to solve problems, his need to work alone to puzzle out what things truly “mean”?

10/1– Canon Making and the (Sherlock Holmes) Canon: Thoughts on Moretti

Moretti certainly does love his trees and I find his analysis of clues in detective fiction curious indeed. (213) It’s specifically interesting for an amateur Sherlockian to see how the Holmes stories have been divided, and where the most popular stories fall in such an arrangement: it’s hardly surprising to find the enduringly popular “The Red-Headed League” has clues that are present, necessary, visible, and decodable, but virtually nobody cares about, remembers, or likes “The Five Orange Pips,” which has 3/4 of these markers (its clues being visible but not decodable). This analysis got me thinking about why specific detective stories (Holmes stories or others) become popular and/or endure when, as Morretti notes, if you remove stories from his tree in which clues are present but are not visible, “we lose half of the Adventure of Sherlock Holmes” — and, what he doesn’t note, many of the most beloved and well-known of those stories. (214)

I love this notion that “Conan Doyle stumbled upon clues while he was working at something completely different, which was the myth of Sherlock Holmes.” (215) I think this certainly explains well the endurance of Holmes stories, which are not always great mysteries in their narratives; so much of the draw of the Sherlock Holmes stories seems be the personality of Holmes himself, which makes clues that are used in the stores not as decipherable signs for reader but “attributes of the omniscient detective” so effective. (216).

And yet, despite the reading audience’s love of the detective’s seeming omniscience, we like stories in which they fail. “A Scandal in Bohemia,” chronicles one of Holmes’s few failures to achieve what he sets out to do for his client– and the story was wildly popular in its publication and continues to be one of fans’ favorite Holmes stories to date. So what’s going here? Is it just schadenfreude? Probably not, considering other cases in which Holmes fails his clients (like “The Five Orange Pips”) are not at all popular. So what makes us like “A Scandal in Bohemia” so much? Is it Irene’s own sleuthing? (The only thing better than an underdog amateur detective is a female underdog amateur detective who’s not even a detective per se).

Of course, some may argue that these “failures” are not failures at all; while Holmes might not succeed in achieving what he sets out to, he nevertheless solves the mystery presented (where is Irene Adler keeping the photograph?) and he does so using clues (what does she do when the call of fire is raised?). I’d be curious to cross reference Moretti’s tree of clues and their usages with the popular Holmes stories to see the relationship between the popularity of individual stories and the clues (and type of said clues)  they employ–or don’t.

Last (tangentially related) thought:  Moretti’s trees (and graphs, and maps) are a fascinating way of looking at data, but what do they do for us as literary scholarship and analysis? I  believe the work he’s doing is telling us something, but is it literary theory? And in a STEM-centric age, does such quantifiable analysis threaten the perceived legitimacy of doing literary analysis the more subjective “old-fashioned” way?