Showing posts with label Elizabeth Peters. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Elizabeth Peters. Show all posts

26 December 2020

Sleuthing and the Heroine's Journey

Greetings from We the North, where it is currently 41° F, with green grass! Even Santa scratched his head last night, wondering which side of the border he was on.

My pleasure today to introduce another stellar Canadian crime writer - Jayne Barnard - with a topic that blew me away. Some of you know I write epic fantasy as well as crime, and happily for readers, so does Jayne. So you can imagine my delight when I read this post and Jayne agreed to share it with us today on SleuthSayers.

We writing instructors always talk about The Hero's Journey in fiction. But did you ever wonder about the Heroine's? Jayne makes the case using crime fiction, and I am wowed by the brilliance of it. Take it away, Jayne…

— Melodie

Sleuthing and the Heroine's Journey

by J.E. Barnard

Here's a new truism for you: a Hero can be halfway through his Quest before a Heroine gets out the door.

And no, it's not because women are always late.

Males are expected to go out questing and few look askance if they do; females are expected to tend the hearth and the children, maintaining the home for the male's triumphal return. Before she can leave, the Heroine must first wrap up or delegate all the responsibilities tying her to normal life.

For the fictional sleuth, those gender expectations make for distinctly different heroic journeys through the crime-solving world.

Whether hard-hitting like a Hammett hero or cerebral as Hercule Poirot, male detectives generally undertake their heroic crime-solving from a place of relative strength and comfort, with skills and allies already in place, and a secure home to return to. They receive, in Joseph Campbell's journey model, a Call to Adventure that, once they overcome initial reluctance to leave their comfort zone, ultimately draws them into the heroic quest: the hunt for a villain or the race to save a (present or future) victim. Along the way they meet a good woman, a bad one, face off against a father figure or more powerful male, overcome some dangers to gain victory, and return to their comfortable world stronger and more respected, if not necessarily wiser.

Sound familiar? It's the baseline for almost every English-language detective story ever published, and almost every movie ever made.

Where a heroine sets foot in that story her role, as Campbell put it, is to "realize that she's the place that people are trying to get to."

Passive, not active.

In 1990, the acclaimed feminist scholar Maureen Murdoch wrote "The Heroine's Journey" to explicate the still-radical theory that women - in life and in fiction - need not follow the male-structured Hero's Journey, but could chart their own course, taking into account the entangled societal expectations and responsibilities that must be managed before the Heroine was free to undertake a Journey that was both outer progress and inner development. As academic Mega Rogers puts it, "The hero begins his journey with a strong sense of self-preservation and ultimately embarks on an external descent, then return to achieve individuation. In contrast, the heroine begins her story lacking a sense of self, giving too much energy to the needs and opinions of others and embarks upon an internal journey of descent from which she travels outward to achieve her individuation."

Plainly put, the first stage of the Heroine's Journey happens when she gets disillusioned by, or is forced out of, the passive, culturally supported, stereotypical feminine role.

Until fairly recently, fictional female sleuths had two choices: be as tough and unencumbered as any man, like Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski, or be both unencumbered by domestic duties and simultaneously able to do their sleuthing on the home front, as did Christie's Miss Marple and Wentworth's Miss Silver. For both models of female sleuth there wasn't a lot of journeying, heroic or otherwise.

I can almost hear the readers crying out, "What about Nancy Drew?" To which I reply with more questions: did Nancy get forced out of a place of comfort? Did she have responsibilities she couldn't shelve to go sleuthing? Did she have an inner journey along with her outer one? The answer to all three is 'No.' She might have been a good sleuth but she wasn't on a Heroine's Journey. The home she came back to was the same safe place she'd left, with no inner growth (and not much outer advancement) demanded.

The modern female sleuth's journey, like the wider Heroine's Journey, is more than a hearth-bound, small-village imitation of the Hero's Journey. It's been shaping women's lives forever and crime fiction since the mid-1950s, when Mary Stewart started writing romantic suspense about heroines who had jobs instead of children. These heroines traveled, tackled mountains and foreign languages, detected anomalous behaviors, formulated theories of crime, decided for themselves who was trustworthy and who was potentially dangerous, and faced killers without fainting or falling into the nearest hero's arms. As Sleuthsayers' regular blogger Melodie Campbell wrote earlier this year, "Mary Stewart's protagonists had courage and resourcefulness. They fought back when threatened. They risked their lives rescuing large animals (This Rough Magic) and even men (The Moonspinners.) This was not only unusual for the time - it was absolutely groundbreaking."

Following in Mary Stewart's keystrokes, crime fiction authors began to let their heroines leap - or creep - out into the world. Even the redoubtable Dame Ngaio Marsh gave Troy Alleyn, wife of her longstanding male detective, a chance at her own journey. 1968's 'A Clutch of Constables' (the 25th book in the series) send Troy on a river cruise that led her into dangerous waters. It wasn't fully a Heroine's Journey as Troy was already quite independent. Further, the tale lacked introspection about her social role even while she puzzled out the mysterious happenings on board the riverboat. In the end, Inspector Alleyn appeared in his habitual heroic role to wrap things up.

That book, however, bridges the gap between the old, passive, heroine-as-adjunct model and the new: a heroine active in crime solving, stretching her skills and forging her own path.

Around the time Ngaio Marsh stopped writing, Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Mertz took up the challenge, expanding the fictional sleuthing Heroine's Journey through her Vicky Bliss romantic suspense series, and her Amelia Peabody historical/satirical adventures. Vicki's involvement in crime ultimately led her to the traditional feminine reward of marriage and domesticity, while Amelia married early and continued on her journey. For 19 further books, Peters wove Amelia's increasing domestic duties through her career growth, her Suffragist efforts, and her intrepid tackling of crime and criminals. Amelia's inner journey started with rejection of marriage/domesticity (her assigned lot in life), wound through self-reflections upon the conflicting demands into a more individuated and comfortable participation in the company of other women as equals & allies and mirrored - sometimes anticipated - the expanding role of women in the late-Victorian/early Edwardian society. Her series-long arc is a near-ideal example of Murdoch's Heroine Journey. (see The Heroine's Journey for discussion and diagram.)

As the dual inner-outer Heroine's Journey took hold in the reading public's imagination, the old ways of solving mysteries through the exercise of either the fists or the little grey cells ceased to be satisfying. Nowadays, sleuths both male and female are expected to have an inner drive as well as an outer goal.

The speed of this shift is clear in the popular Miss Fisher mysteries as they moved from print to small screen. In 1989, author Kerry Greenwood set out to write an Australian adult Nancy Drew, a well-off and stylish sleuth who had adventures, but with added zing from adult freedoms including the sexual. The books' Phryne had a straightforward, hedonistic life with no much self-reflection beyond a determination to reject the confining expectations of upper class 1920s woman. The 2012 TV series, however, sets Phryne on an inner as well as outer quest. The childhood loss of her sister to a sadistic killer drives the adult Phryne to rescue street urchins and orphans, solve crimes mostly involving women, and along the way come to terms with her guilt and grief over her sister's kidnapping and murder. In doing heroic deeds outwardly for others, she progresses on her inward heroic journey.

Another aspect of the Heroine's Journey is the allies found along the way, more likely to be equal partners than the mentor or apprentices found in the Hero's Journey. As fantasy fiction author Elizabeth Whitton said during a recent panel discussion, "While the Hero's Journey is all about the main guy, the 'I', Heroines tend to talk, think and act as 'we'." Allyship is central for Heroines.

During the writing of my Falls Mysteries, starting in the mid-oughts, the Heroine's Journey was already part of my psyche due to decade of reading crime fiction with heroic female sleuths. My main sleuth, Lacey, is an ex-Mountie suffering from PTSD due to both workplace incidents and the violent spouse she fled (forced out of the home sphere.) My secondary sleuth, Jan, lost her art history career to an illness, ME/CFS, for which no cause and no cure were then (or are now) available. In 'When the Flood Falls,' the first book, Lacey and Jan must band together to save their mutual friend Dee from a midnight stalker who seems to be escalating his invasions. While each starts off thinking the other woman is a frail reed in the partnership, they soon recognize they are stronger together: Lacey's physical power and police training combine with Jan's art-trained observational skills and her deep knowledge of the suspects.

In addition to learning to work together, each woman must progress on her inner Heroine's Journey in order to survive and surmount the rising challenges around the heroic task of saving Dee. Lacey learns to accept help when offered and Jan to ask for what she needs to keep functioning physically. As the trilogy closes, in addition to solving some crimes and saving some vulnerable characters, Lacey has let down her armor and progressed in her inner healing, while Jan takes her first steps back into the wider world previously lost to her illness.

Once you understand the Heroine's Journey dynamic, you'll see it not only in crime fiction but in movies and television...and in daily life. How many true Heroines do you know?

Bio: JE (Jayne) Barnard has 25 years of award-winning fiction to her name. Her bestselling women’s wilderness suspense series, The Falls Mysteries (Dundurn Press) follows contemporary characters facing raw nature and manmade threats, medically assisted dying as well as murder, PTSD, and ME/CFS. Her newest book, Why the Rock Falls, excavates the dysfunctional family lives of Hollywood directors and oil dynasties amid the jaw-dropping limestone climbs in Alberta’s Ghost River valley. Follow her on

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02 August 2017

The Uncanny Valley of the Kings

I have been thinking a lot about the uncanny valley this year.  As I understand it, the concept was first described by Masahiro Mori in 1970, though it took a while to work its way into English.

Here's the idea, as I understand it: If something looks sort of human we tend to like it more until it looks too much  like a human and then we register it as creepy.  That creepy zone is the uncanny valley.  I suppose the evolutionary psychology explanation would be that there is an advantage to being turned off by someone a little too biologically far away to produce  successful offspring with.

Early this year I saw Rogue One,  the new Star Wars film.  There are two characters in it who appeared in the earliest films and have been reproduced here through computer imagery.  The first one I thought was a complete success; I felt totally convinced.  (On the other hand, a teenager who was with me said she "wasn't sure he was human."  So obviously not everyone bought it.)  And speaking of not buying it, the second CGI-built character, well.  To me, that one was the definition of the Uncanny Valley.  Unconvincing and just plain creepy.

A few months ago someone, I don't recall who, described Robert Goldsborough's novels about Rex Stout's character Nero Wolfe as occupying "the uncanny valley of literature."  In other words, they are recognizably not the real thing, but close enough to make a reader uncomfortable.

I bring all this up because July saw the release of The Painted Queen, Elizabeth Peters' last novel about Victorian Egyptologist Amelia Peabody.  If you aren't familiar with these charming books, hop to it.  Peters covered several decades in the adventures of Peabody's family.  When she finished her main storyline she started filling in "missing years" in the saga.

And this book does that, exploring the circumstances of the discovery (and mysterious disappearance and resurfacing) of a magnificent bust of Nefertiti.  Naturally, all the odd historical events turn out to be related to the actions of the Peabody/Emerson clan.

And what does this have to do with my main topic, you may ask?  Elizabeth Peters died before the novel was finished.  We have it because her estate asked Joan Hess  to finish the book.  It certainly made sense; Hess is a talented mystery writer with a sardonic wit not unlike Peters, and they had been friends for three decades.  They had even discussed the plot.

Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so is this dish a banquet or a case of too many cooks?  (And that metaphor is a bit uncanny too.) I will start by saying  that if you are a fan of Peters you should read it.

 But to my mind, the uncanny valley is definitely visible.  I may be completely wrong but I felt like I knew to the very page when Hess took over the pen.  One of the characters just jumped, uh, out of character, and never jumped back.

It disturbed me for a while.  All I could notice were what I saw as false notes.

But eventually, I got used to it.  I found that if I concentrated on the plot and not the character details I could still enjoy the book.  It felt something like watching a movie based on a familiar book: a similar experience, but not the same.

I am not criticizing Joan Hess for honoring her friend in this way.  (You might argue she also did it to make money.  I would reply: Good; I hope she does.  And I imagine Elizabeth Peters would agree with me.)  But I hope no one feels the need  to write more in the series.

By the way, the book takes place mostly in Amarna, not the Valley of the Kings, but you can't expect me to resist a title like that, can you?

16 October 2013

Summer Book Review

Yes, I know summer has passed.  But I have been meaning to write about these three mystery novels I read over the summer and I have finally had a chance to do so.  You can give me a low grade if you want.  But all three books are worth reading, and each gives me something to complain about, which I find in late middle age is a very important opportunity.

A Corpse's Nightmare, by Phillip DePoy.  Worldwide Mystery, 2011

My first encounter with DePoy was earlier this year when he wrote a story in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, about Fever Develin, a professor of folklore, laid off from the university and now living in his old family home, deep in the hills of Appalachia.

The professor is the titular corpse in this novel.  (And isn't Fever Develin a lovely name, by the way?)   On the first page we are told that "On the 3rd of December, just before midnight, a total stranger came into my home and shot me as I slept in my bed.  I died before the emergency mdeical team could find their way to my house."

As you might suspect, he doesn't stay dead, thanks to a highly-motivated medical practitioner.  But throughout the book people keep referring to his killing and the murderer, which he finds extremely creepy.  And he has a lot of trouble telling his coma-induced dreams from his somewhat surreal surroundings.

Because there are a lot of eccentrics in the vicinity of Blue Mountain, and some of them are members of his family.  It becomes clear that the attack has something to do with the past and his peculiar collection of relatives.  I especially enjoyed the academic discussions between Fever and fellow professor Winston Andrews, which often seems to be no more than a way of coping with tension.  I know people like that.

My complaint about this one?  DePoy dances on a tightrope here -- is Fever really remembering things from his childhood or is there something supernatural going on?  -- and for the most time he does it well, but at the end he tips too far toward the woo woo side, in my opinion, providing one of those "ooh spooky" situations I strongly disapprove of. 

("Ooh spooky" defined: A story has a possible supernatural element which is cleared up with a materialistic explanation.  Then at the very end a superfluous bit of ghostiness is dragged in for effect.  To make up an example: "But wait, the killer said he only lit the lamp twice and we saw it three times.  There must have been a real ghost!  Ooh, spooky!"  For some reason, TV movies are particularly susceptible to this.)

Spy's Fate, by Arnaldo Correa.  Akashic Press, 2002  

The Soviet Union has just collapsed, taking away Cuba's biggest trade partner and source of foreign aid.  The Cuban economy has gone to hell, resulting in the nation's spy apparatus pulling back its revolutionaries from Africa and Latin America, and the government tacitly permitting many people to flee to the United States in any boat or raft they can find.

Carlos Manuel is one of those spies suddenly in from the cold,  and not getting a warm reception at home.  His wife committed suicide some time before and his grown children want nothing to do with him.  But when he hears that his kids are heading toward America -- and straight into a storm -- he risks everything to save them.

And finds himself in the U.S., very much on the run.  The CIA knows a major Cuban spy is in the US but has no idea what his mission is (in fact, he just wants to get home).   Making it worse, the head of the CIA's Cuban desk is a man Carlos brutally maimed a decade ago in Central America, and he will stop at nothing to get revenge. 

My complaints?  Threefold.  First, you have to accept a Cuban spy who has spent decades training guerillas as your hero.  Some of us may have a hard time with that.  Second, with one exception everyone in the Cuban spy agency is so nice to each other.  I find that hard to believe about any intelligence agency.  And finally, let's admit it, Carlos is a Mary Sue.  He can beat up an armed man much bigger than he is, speak unaccented English, paint sellable landscapes, and learn to scuba dive in a few days.  What's Spanish for sheesh?

The Golden One, by Elizabeth Peters, Morrow, 2002. 

We lost Ms. Peters this year, and I am still working my way through her wonderful series about Egyptologist Amelia Peabody.  They are not for everyone, I am sure.  I expect some people would find them fey and unbearably slow-moving.  (It can take a hundred pages for her to set up her plot and get the first corpse in place.)  But to me this comes off as the confidence of a master.

When this story starts it is 1917 and Peabody and her remarkable family have decided to stay in Egypt for the duration of the war, because U-boats have made travel too dangerous.  They would rather do nothing but dig at a promising ruin, but the British intelligence service is again trying to coax her son Ramses back into harness, and this time they have a remarkable bit of bait: Sethos, the family's foremost frenemy (say that three times fast) is either a prisoner behind enemy lines, or has turned traitor.  If Ramses can't get Sethos out, someone will be sent to kill him. 

And so we have two unrelated mysteries going on here: one archaeological, and one espionage-ical.  Okay, that isn't a word, but which word works? 

When Peters started to write this series I wonder if she noticed the trap she was setting for herself.  Namely: Amelia's husband Emerson is supposedly the greatest Egyptologist in history, but she doesn't want to credit him with true great finds, stealing them from genuine archaeologists (some of whom appear as characters in the novels).  She deals with this, in part, by making Emerson so egotistical, stubborn, and short-tempered that he offends everyone who could give him permission to get near the great tombs.  In this particular book, she finds a different way to frustrate him.

But that is not my complaint.  Here it is.  Like Elmore Leonard and Ed McBain my problem with her is that, as much as I enjoy her books, a month later I can't remember what happened in any of them.  Or more precisely, what happened in which.  Does anyone else feel that way?

Okay, that completes my book report.  Don't grade too harshly.