Sisters in Crime will award two academic research grants [link to application information] in 2016. Below are reports from researchers who were previously funded through this program.
Ellen Burton Harrington
The Rise of the American Woman Detective: Gender and Detective Genre in Green, Doyle, and Rinehart
I was awarded the Sisters in Crime Academic Research Grant in May 2015 to purchase books that form the basis of my research for “The Rise of the American Woman Detective: Gender and Detective Genre in Green, Doyle, and Rinehart,” an essay that is part of a forthcoming collection, A History of Crime Fiction in America. The grant funding has been tremendously helpful to my scholarly work on popular genre fiction by these American women writers and often featuring women detectives. With the grant, I purchased twenty-seven books from independent used booksellers, primarily early editions of out-of-print detective novels, but also some scholarly editions and critical work in this area. This trove has allowed me to survey the works of Green and Rinehart in reliable editions and to consider them alongside the work of Arthur Conan Doyle.
Focusing in particular on female detectives in the work of Anna Katharine Green and Mary Roberts Rinehart, this essay contextualizes these works alongside the transatlantic influence of Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes stories are themselves influenced by Green’s The Leavenworth Case. Drawing on the fascinating gender constructions and critiques in these stories, I consider the ways Green’s and Rinehart’s work draws on gothic and Victorian detective fiction, while anticipating and influencing feminist hard-boiled detective fiction of the late twentieth century. This essay also will serve as a springboard for me to conduct a more detailed study of transatlantic influences in representations of the female detective around the turn of the century and in the early twentieth century.
I want to express my sincere thanks to Sisters in Crime for their support of academic research on gender and diversity in crime fiction and my hope that this program will continue to support scholars for many years to come.
Reinvestigating Domestic Detective Fiction
The generous support of Sisters in Crime has helped fund my research on late nineteenth-century American women’s detective fiction. This is a period that saw a number of significant firsts, including the first detective story by an American woman (Harriet Prescott Spofford’s “In a Cellar” ), the first detective novel by an American writer of either gender (Meta Fuller Victor’s The Dead Letter ), and the first work of detective fiction by an African American (Pauline Hopkins’s “Talma Gordon” ). A few women writers of detective fiction from this era achieved literary celebrity, notably Anna Katharine Green, whose bestselling debut The Leavenworth Case (1878) launched a remarkably prolific career that would stretch across six decades, thirty-three subsequent novels, and four collections of short stories, earning her the admiration of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and a reputation as “the mother of detective fiction.” None other than Louisa May Alcott also wrote pioneering work in the genre, penning thrillers and mysteries as A.M. Barnard before going on to success under her own name with Little Women. For the most part though, the contributions of late nineteenth-century women to detective fiction have faded from our cultural memory, mentioned in passing if not unacknowledged altogether in major histories of the genre’s development.
While recent work by other scholars has done much to correct this oversight, it has often done so by looking backwards, making a case for the significance of late nineteenth-century women’s detective fiction in the context of earlier developments. Catherine Ross Nickerson’s seminal book-length study, for example, analyzes how what she calls “domestic detective fiction” draws on conventions from two of the century’s most popular forms—the domestic novel and gothic literature—in order to shed light on those secrets hidden behind the genteel façade of the upper middle-class home. As valuable as the work of Nickerson and the critics who have followed her has been, it was my hunch that the “domestic” might be too limiting a framework within which to examine this fascinating body of literature, and that these texts might speak to concerns other than just those that have typically been associated with popular women’s writing from the nineteenth century (e.g., sentiment, piety, motherhood). Indeed, the more I read, the more I was struck by how often the plots and protagonists of these stories travel well beyond the confines of the home. Some of these texts, including the trailblazing stories by Spofford and Hopkins mentioned above, even go so far as to address issues of transnational or cosmopolitan significance, and thus venture into thematic territory usually understood as belonging to more canonical works or to genre fiction written by men. In this sense, late nineteenth-century American women’s detective fiction actually looks forward, anticipating, to a striking degree, our contemporary preoccupation with the complex interconnections between the domestic and the global.
This global turn in late nineteenth-century American women’s detective fiction is the subject of “Home and Away: Reinvestigating Domestic Detective Fiction,” which will appear as a chapter in A Cambridge History of American Crime Fiction, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in late 2016. Thanks in large part to all of the books I was able to purchase with money from the Sisters in Crime academic research grant, I have a lot more material than I could possibly fit into one chapter. I’m intrigued in particular by the ways in which late nineteenth-century American women’s detective fiction can be read as innovative not just in its content, but also in its form—I’m thinking here, for example, of Green’s insertion of crime scene diagrams, handwritten notes, and other interesting typographic details into the body of her texts. That’s something that seems unusual to me in literature from the period, and that I’m hoping to explore further. In the meantime, I’m very grateful to have been a recipient of one of the inaugural academic research grants from Sisters in Crime. There’s still much to be learned about and from American women’s mystery writing, and I’m excited to see the ways in which future projects sponsored by Sisters in Crime might contribute further to our understanding of this rich literary tradition.
Yellow Noir: The Asian American Detective in American Popular Culture
My doctoral dissertation, The Hardboiled and the Haunted: Race, Masculinity, and the Asian American Detective, examines an emerging genre of detective fiction created by Asian American authors. At the turn of the twenty-first century, a group of Asian American writers arrived on the mystery scene and wrote novels featuring detectives that reflected their own ethnic backgrounds. While stereotypical “Asian” characters of the past like Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto were modeled after the intellectual sleuths of the classic English mystery, the contemporary Asian American detectives that I discuss in my dissertation take their cues from decidedly different sources—the tough guy protagonists of the American hardboiled detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. In my view, this appropriation of the hardboiled aesthetic serves as a strategic maneuver to reframe Asian American masculinity as a means to confront the many negative stereotypes that have long circulated in American popular culture.
As a result, the issue of masculinity emerges as a substantial concern within the texts I examine, and it is an issue that is both addressed and seemingly “resolved” through the lens of an overtly masculinist genre. And yet, despite the groundbreaking status of these new iterations of the detective form, my study also sheds light on the dangerous allure of the hardboiled aesthetic by illustrating the ways in which minority-created texts can also reproduce, rather than critique, the toxic masculinity that is often present in noir.
Admittedly, the research I began for this initial project yielded more material than I could incorporate into my dissertation. Thus, I have already begun the process of transforming it into a much longer book, complete with a new title: Yellow Noir: The Asian American Detective in American Popular Culture. While my dissertation focused much of its analysis on representations of Asian American men in the detective genre as written by male authors like Dale Furutani, Leonard Chang, Henry Chang, and Ed Lin, it is important to recognize that the most recent wave of Asian American mysteries have been written by women. Originally, I had intended for my dissertation to include a chapter on this exciting group of authors, but unfortunately, this section had to be truncated for the finished product.
Thankfully, through the generous support of an academic research grant from Sisters in Crime, I now have the opportunity to address this issue and give these authors their due. In this new chapter, tentatively titled “From Dragon Ladies to Detectives: Women in Asian American Detective Fiction,” I look at the portrayal of Asian and Asian American women in the detective genre, focusing primarily on mystery novels that feature and are written by Asian American women. I begin the chapter with Robert Florey’s Daughter of Shanghai, a remarkably progressive 1937 mystery film starring Anna May Wong as a Chinese American woman seeking to avenge her father’s death and expose an immigrant smuggling ring. Using both the film and Wong herself as a springboard to discuss how Asian women have been portrayed in popular culture, I then transition into an analysis of the detective novels of authors such as Steph Cha, Naomi Hirahara, Suki Kim, Francie Lin, and Nina Revoyr. Featuring both female and male protagonists, these mystery novels serve as an exciting new development in the genre, one that I suspect will both complement and further complicate the figure of the Asian American detective.
While Juanita Sheridan, S.J. Rozan, and other authors have written novels with female detectives of Asian descent, my research suggests that the first to be written by an Asian American woman is 1984’s Murder on the Air, which attorney Toni Ihara co-wrote with her husband, Ralph Warner. The novel centers on Sara Tamura, a Los Angeles-born, third-generation Japanese American who works as a violent crimes investigator in Berkeley.
While Ihara’s novel focused on a police detective, many of the mysteries written by Asian American women utilize amateur sleuths. For example, Suki Kim’s The Interpreter features Suzy Park, a twenty-nine-year-old Korean American who discovers, while working as an interpreter for the New York judicial system, a new lead in the unsolved murder of her immigrant parents, both of whom were brutally killed in an apparent grocery store robbery. Similarly, Jackie Ishida, the protagonist of Nina Revoyr’s Southland (2003) is a twenty-five-year-old Japanese American law student who discovers long-buried secrets that connect the closing of her late grandfather’s convenience store with an unsolved murder during the Watts riots in 1965. While Kim and Revoyr’s amateur detectives are both women, Francie Lin’s 2008 Edgar Award-winning novel, The Foreigner, employs a male protagonist—Emerson Chang, a timid forty-year-old virgin who travels to Taipei to scatter his late mother’s ashes only to find himself caught up with the Taiwanese mafia.
The most prolific writer of Asian American detective fiction would have to be Naomi Hirahara. To date, the Los Angeles-based author has published five novels featuring Mas Arai, an elderly gardener-turned-amateur sleuth. The Summer of the Big Bachi (2004), the first novel in the series, centers on Mas’s involvement in a murder case with roots that go back to the bombing of Hiroshima. The book is followed by Gasa-Gasa Girl (2005), the Edgar Award-winning Snakeskin Shamisen (2006), Blood Hina (2010), Strawberry Yellow (2013), and the forthcoming Sayonara Slam (2016). With the publication of Murder on Bamboo Lane (2014) and Grave on Grand Avenue (2015), Hirahara has successfully launched a second detective series, this one starring the much younger Ellie Rush, a rookie LAPD bicycle cop with dreams of someday becoming a homicide detective.
The one author whose work most closely resembles that of the hardboiled tradition is Steph Cha, who has written a trio of novels centering on Juniper Song, a Korean American amateur detective-turned- private eye. As readers soon discover, the character’s overriding love for the fictional detective Philip Marlowe causes her to get in all sorts of trouble throughout much of the series, which currently includes Follow Her Home (2013), Beware, Beware (2014), and Dead Soon Enough (2015). These detective novels work not only as homages to the work of Raymond Chandler, but as contemporary meditations on loneliness, alienation, and guilt in modern day Los Angeles.
When completed, Yellow Noir will serve as the first critical analysis of both literary and cinematic detective stories featuring Asian Americans. By highlighting this relatively new genre of noir, my project seeks to expand upon conversations within the field of Asian American studies centered on anti-Asian racism in the United States as well as explore the interlocking vectors of race, gender, and sexuality within the realms of American popular fiction and cinema.
But at the moment, the investigation has only begun.
Ordeal by Access: Issues in the Classification and Cataloging of Crime Fiction
I am pleased to announce that I will be giving a presentation based on my project to the annual national conference of the Popular Culture & American Culture Association in the Libraries, Archives, Museums, and Popular Research area. My paper, titled “Cozies, Capers, and Suchlike Criminal Endeavors: Towards a Taxonomy of Mystery Fiction,” will give an overview of the history of subject and genre access to fiction in libraries, with particular attention paid to the genre broadly known as ‘mystery fiction.’ It will analyze taxonomies of the mystery genre offered by historical works, critical works, and existing classification schemes, and will offer some prospective genre/form terms based on these models. Lastly, it will discuss the implicit gender biases evident in these taxonomies and offer a broader taxonomy of the crime genre.
I wish to thank Sisters in Crime for providing me with the funds to purchase needed reference works on the mystery genre for this project. Without the grant, it would have been prohibitively expensive to obtain many of these books, some of which are not available for interlibrary loan. I look forward to providing you with more updates on my project