Thrilled again

A feminist update on my list of favorite thrillers: book/daddy will not be a site (entirely) dedicated to thrillers, but there was a strong response to my first postings, which just happened to consider noir novels.

In particular, many readers sent their recommendations for hard-boiled female author/heroines because my 'top 10 favorite literary thrillers' (which, of course, listed 15 books) didn't include a woman. But I consciously addressed that lack, noting that even Patricia Highsmith, one of the few acknowledged female masters of the hard-boiled school, created a male protagonist. I expressed a willingness to consider a female heroine; I just hadn't found one.

That opened the floodgates. Even Laura Lippman, author of the Baltimore-based Tess Monaghan novels such as Charm City and Butchers Hill, weighed in with a thoughtful, personal e-mail, dismayed at the gender bias of another all-male hard-boiled list. (For the record, she does not consider her novels hard-boiled -- she wasn't arguing for herself as a candidate.)

I'm grateful to the many readers who wrote because the top vote-getter was Denise Mina, specifically her 2005 novel, Field of Blood (recently released in paperback). I read it over the weekend, while at the Texas Book Festival. I quickly remembered why I'd not picked up the novel when first released: Some of the hosannas greeting it compared Ms. Mina enthusiastically to Patricia Cornwell, an overrated author whose work, I am thankful, actually isn't much like Field of Blood at all. That title, also, suggested a bad Ann Rice gothic tale (I still think the title is misleading).

But I was mightily impressed. Field of Blood is very good. The evocation of Glaswegian gloom and class/religious resentments, the portrayal of bottle-of-booze-in-the-bottom-drawer, old-style newspaper journalism, the fading Irish Catholicism of Paddy Meehan, the novel's young, female "copy boy," and her struggles with her family and her boyfriend -- good stuff, well done, all of it.

But I'm still not adding it to my list. To learn why, you'll have to continue past the SPOILER ALERT my reasons can spoil the story for those who haven't read it.


First, as soon as she sees the killing ground and hears who is accused of the murder, Paddy believes it couldn't have been done by the two boys without adult supervision. To herself, she repeatedly berates the press and the police and the public in general for taking what she sees is the easy conclusion -- the two boys are horribly evil -- instead of what she believes is a tougher but still obvious solution: Only an adult could have done this.

But this is exactly upside-down. Whenever another school shooting or schoolkid rape hits the news, it's hard for many people to accept the idea that even pre-teens are capable of such savagery. They want to find an explanation that would still preserve some notion of childhood innocence. Finding some adult skulker or pedophile, as gruesome or upsetting as that might seem, is actually consoling to a degree. This kind of evil makes some sense. A 10-year-old boy murdering his 5-year-old brother for no real reason doesn't.

More importantly, it's clear from the first few chapters of Field of Blood that the narrative we can expect is the 'Brenda Starr, cub reporter" story: young wannabe journalist breaks the big story and wins love. Ms. Mina considerably darkens her cub reporter narrative with the lengths to which Paddy goes, and the violence she provokes, plus her estrangement from friends and family. But that's still the basic story.

Put another way: Paddy doesn't really lose anything from her tough choices. True, even noir novels generally end happily (except those of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson). But often what happens is that the detective has to give up something -- the woman he's attracted to, the money he's been promised, a friendship, even his own self-respect. That's one reason the moral choice I alluded to in my earlier posting is a tough one: It's not just unclear or morally compromised; it can have rotten consequences. Look at Humphrey Bogart's glistening eyes as he tells Brigid in The Maltese Falcon that she's going to take the fall. It's why he's bitter; he's losing a piece of himself.

But with Paddy, although she sheds one boyfriend, she's rewarded with an even better one. Although she alienates her family, she gains workplace esteem. And so on. For those who've read the story and admire it, consider what it would be like if Paddy had broken the case but still didn't win much respect from the male reporters. Or if, in breaking the case, she pissed off her new boyfriend. It would make for a more complex, bluesier story. As it is, she pretty much wins all around.

Nonetheless, Field of Blood was good enough, certainly worth the reading, that I'm going to proceed through some of the other suggestions readers offered. This, then, will probably be a series of reports on my encounters with noirish female thriller-writers.

November 3, 2006 9:11 AM | | Comments (1)



Natsuo Kirino's Out wasn't published in the US until 2003, but it's as hardcore a noir thriller as anyone could ask for, an unforgettable book.


Best of the Vault


Pat Barker, Frankenstein, Cass Sunstein on the internet, Samuel Johnson, Thrillers, Denis Johnson, Alan Furst, Caryl Phillips, Richard Flanagan, George Saunders, Michael Harvey, Larry McMurtry, Harry Potter and more ...


Big D between the sheets -- Dallas in fiction


Reviewing the state of reviewing


9/11 as a novel: Why?


How can critics say the things they do? And why does anyone pay attention? It's the issue of authority.

The disappearing book pages:  

Papers are cutting book coverage for little reason

Thrillers and Lists:  

Noir favorites, who makes the cut and why



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by book/daddy published on November 3, 2006 9:11 AM.

Spy vs Spy was the previous entry in this blog.

Not for breakfast reading ... is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.