Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Gender Stereotypes and the Mystery Genre: From Christie to Rendell

In the mystery genre, no one can compare with the amazing British authors Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell. The first of these authors created the genre* while the second one took it to incredible heights in a number of extremely well-crafted novels. Compared with the psychological and literary sophistication of Rendell's work, Christie's novels seem primitive. The language is simple, the characters are one-dimensional, and the plots are quite similar.

One thing, however, is shared by the two queens of the detective genre. Both Christie and Rendell know extremely well how to manipulate the gender stereotypes of their times to create a mystery their readers will not be able to solve. Take, for example, Agatha Christie's The Moving Finger and Ruth Rendell's A Fatal Inversion**. In The Moving Finger, Christie attempts to prevent the readers from guessing the identity of the criminal by relying on their misogynistic vision of what constitutes "male" and "female" kinds of crime. This particular gender stereotype has lost its currency completely in the decades that elapsed since the novel was published. As a result, The Moving Finger is one of the lesser known of Christie's novels. A modern-day reader will have no trouble guessing what really happened since the gender stereotype is the only thing standing between the reader and the realization of the criminal's identity.

Ruth Rendell's A Fatal Inversion is one of this prolific author's best mysteries***. Vulnerability is the topic she explores in this novel in a stunningly successful way. Her characters are vulnerable to all kinds of things: sexual obsession, insanity, the desire to fit in at all costs, fear of rejection, the desire to fit in, alcoholism. The question of which one of them will prove to be the only truly resilient one remains unanswered until the stunning ending of the book. However, if it were not for our deeply-ingrained gender stereotypes, that ending would not surprise us in the least.

Hopefully, the gender stereotypes that Rendell based her novel on will pass into oblivion one day, just like the ones that informed Christie's outdated mystery I have discussed here****.

* Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle created the genre of the police procedural, not the mystery novel as such. Christie's Hercule Poirot makes vicious fun of Sherlock Holmsian type of characters. Rendell has written quite a few police procedurals (her Inspector Wexford series), which I consider to be vastly inferior to her mystery novels.

** The novel was published under Rendell's nom de plume Barbara Vine.

*** A Fatal Inversion, The Bridesmaid and Thirteen Steps Down are Rendell's best novels, in my opinion. If I weren't wary of making this list too long, I would add The Chimney Sweeper's Boy and No Night Is Too Long to the list of her best work. If you like the mystery genre but still have not read anything by Rendell, what are you waiting for? She is absolutely the best. 

**** I have tried to discuss the plots of these novels as little as possible here to avoid spoiling the pleasure of their future readers.


Spanish prof said...

Clarissa, we can get into discussions of genres and subgenres, but Conan Doyle's are not police procedurals. Police procedurals are depictions of the everyday life and investigations of a police man or a police force.

Steve Hayes said...

I've read quite a lot of Rendell's books, and enjoyed most of them, though I think in her more recently-published ones she seems to be losing her touch.

I'm not sure of the distinction between "police procendurals" and "mystery" novels, though. Most of her novels are crime novels or one kind or another, and I mentally divide them into "whodunits" and "whydunits". In the former the reader is invited to guess the identity of the criminal, while in the latter the identity of the criminal is known, and its more an examination of what led them to commit the crime.

I think my favourite is Asta's book. I don't think I've read A fatal inversion yet, I must watch out for it. I've read The chimney-sweeper's boy twice.

Clarissa said...

Asta's Book I actually consider to be a complete flop on Rendell's part. The main characters are a bunch of unredeemably nasty people.

Sp. Prof.: What about Inspector Japp and the fact that Holmes acts on his behalf most of the time? The police force looked different in those times, that's all.

Spanish prof said...

One attribute that Conan Doyle's stories do not have is any hint of realism. I don't think that that's how the police force used to operate in those times. Holmes acts on his behalf, doesn't follow the rules of the police force. In fact, he is as individualistic as it can be. I could go on for pages here, but to summarize:

Holmes is the intellectual genius of probably an upper class upbringing. Japp is always slightly clueless, although a respectable employee of a law enforcement agency. There is a class reason for the differences in the characters. Holmes is a glorification of XIXth century positivism and class stratification. Japp cannot operate well in the aristocratic environments of all those novels, because he doesn't belong.

Although I find it overly deterministic in its Marxism, Ernst Mandel's "Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story" is an good introduction to the different sub-genres of crime fiction.

I read all of Agatha Christie's mysteries between the age of 12 and 14. At some point I realized that there were 4 or 5 basic structures in her novels (with some exceptions, like "Who killed Roger Ackroyd?", "Murder in the Orient Express"), so I started guessing with 100% accuracy who the criminal was. Too bad I didn't write it down, it could have made a good grad student paper.

Personally, I like the hard-boiled better. And, next to that, Patricia Highsmith.

Clarissa said...

I agree with everything you say but still the details of investigation, the classification of criminals, the CSI techniques are central to Conan Doyle's books. None of that is even remotely present even in Rendell's Inspector Wexford series.

Do you specialize in Lat. Am. crime fiction, by any chance? Your knowledge is obviously very extensive.

Spanish prof said...

Yep, I do. Or that was my dissertation topic. I also do Latin American Cinema. At this point, I'm expanding the scope of my research to Contemporary Latin American Urban Lit and Cinema.

There are a few reasons for that, but one of them is, I kid you not, that I hate classifications and I've already gotten an article submission returned with objections to my classifications of different subgenres of the crime fiction (by a reviewer who didn't know too much about the subject). I, particularly, couldn't care less about whether something is hard-boiled, traditional classical detective novel, police procedural, etc. In this day and age, you won't find too many novels that are clear cut one or the other.

Clarissa said...

Then I will gladly defer to the opinion of a specialist like you on this issue. :-)

I know what you mean about classifications. I specialize in female Bildungsroman and it's a constant drama with people who have their own classification of the subgenres.

Spanish prof said...

I know. I gave up on trying to convince somebody that because a novel was published in the 1980s, and takes place in 1922, that doesn't make it an historical novel.

It's a shame, because I actually like to analyze popular culture genres and how they are adopted/subverted/modified in Latin America. Melodrama is another one that hasn't been studied vast enough (except maybe in relationship to Mexico).

maitreyi1978 said...

I love the rendell books, especially her Wexford series. What is your opinion of A Judgement In Stone?