Picks and Pans Review: A Woman's Eye

updated 09/09/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/09/1991 01:00AM

Edited by Sara Paretsky

The corpses scattered throughout this anthology will not be remembered for their shocking wounds. The criminals won't menace with fists and snarls. A murder or two may never be solved. But victims' voices at last resound, and motives are nearly always found in these 21 stories starring female sleuths.

Few of the detectives are as hard-boiled as editor Paretsky's own V.I. Warshawski (well represented here in "Settled Score"). Yet all have evolved significantly from their early detective prototypes—women who, as Paretsky notes in her introduction, "did not upset male stereotypes. Jane Marple is everybody's elderly spinster aunt, essentially asexual." These latter-day models know too much, and their worlds are far more jarring.

Paretsky, for example, opens this collection with Liza Cody's "Lucky Dip," in which a homeless child calmly approaches a body braced against a wall: "He had not been dead long. You could tell that at a glance because he still had his shoes on. If you die here you won't keep your shoes for ten minutes." It is not the dead man who poses the mystery, but the street urchin, a girl all too aware that "having things is dangerous. Having things makes you a mark. It's like being pretty." It is a thought only a woman could have.

What might easily degenerate into a Perry Mason plot—an uptight professor accused of bludgeoning a student—in the hands of Amanda Cross ("Murder Without a Text") becomes a credible crime, with a witty twist: The prof is female, the victim a member of her women's studies seminar. The disappearance of an elderly woman's diamond ring leads to a study of class and circumstance in Faye Kellerman's haunting "Discards." Turning the genre upside down, these writers offer shifting, unsettling views.

There are some silly moments—Sue Grafton is not well represented by the sophomoric "Full Circle"; Barbara Wilson's feminist "Theft of the Poet" seems gratuitous; Dorothy B. Hughes's "That Summer at Quichiquois," while provocative, ends the collection on an evasive note.

But that is a question of taste, and there's something for every fan here—even those who miss the grubby digs and staccato speech of traditional male private eyes:

"He sure hadn't expected to find a female detective," writes Spanish author Maria Antonia Oliver in "Where Are You, Monica?' " translated by Kathleen McNerney. "For my part, I certainly never expected to find a man like him in my greasy office. What a man—tall, well dressed, well built, the kind that turns your head on the street, the kind you want a hug from when you have them nearby."

That's right. "The Corpse Wore L.L. Bean." (Delacorte, $19)

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