Female authors and their male detectives: the ideological contest in female-authored crime fiction : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in English at Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand
In the nineteen-eighties a host of female detectives appeared in crime fiction authored
by women. Ostensibly these detectives challenged hegemonic norms, but the
consensus of opinion was that their appropriation of male values and adherence to
conventional generic closures colluded with a gender system of male privilege.
Academic interest in the work of female authors featuring male detectives was
limited. Yet it can be argued that these texts could have the potential to disrupt the
hegemonic order through the introduction, whether deliberately, or inadvertently, of a
female counterpoint to the hegemony.
The hypothesis I am advancing claims that the reconfiguration of male detectives in
works authored by women avoids the visible contradictions of gender and genre that
are characteristic of works featuring female detectives. However, through their use of
disruptive performatives, these works allow scope for challenging normal gender
practices—without damage to the genre. This hypothesis is tested by applying the
performative theories of Judith Butler to a close reading of selected crime novels.
Influenced by the theories of Austin, Lacan and Althusser, Butler’s concept of
performativity claims that hegemonic notions of gender are a fiction. This discussion
also uses Wayne Booth’s concept of the implied author as a means of distinguishing
the performative agency of the text from that of the characters.
Agatha Christie, P.D. James, and Donna Leon, each with their male detective heroes,
come from different generations. A Butlerian reading illustrates their potential for
disrupting gender norms. Of the three, however, only Donna Leon avoids the return to
hegemonic control that is a feature of the genre. Christie’s women who have agency
are inevitably eliminated, while conformist women are rewarded. James’s lead female
character is never fully at ease in her professional role. When thrust into a leadership
she proves herself to be competent, but not ready or desirous of the senior position.
Instead her role is to mediate the transition of her junior, a male, to that position.
Donna Leon is different. The moral and emotional content of her narratives suggests
an implied author committed to ideological change. Her characters simultaneously
renounce and collude with illusions of patriarchal authority, and could lay claim to be
models for Butler’s notion of performative resistance.