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Women of Mystery: Three Writers Who Forever Changed Detective Fiction

Distributed by New Day Films, 22-D Hollywood Avenue, Hohokus, NJ 07423; 201-652-6590
Produced by Pamela Beere Briggs and William McDonald
Directed by Pamela Briggs
VHS, color, 53 min.
Biography, Women's Studies, Writing

Reviewed by Linda Lohr, Health Sciences Library, University at Buffalo, State University of New York

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   

In this highly interesting film three of the most popular mystery writers of today discuss their reasons for writing and the life experiences that shape their novels and the actions of their famous female detectives. Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone is an investigator for the All Souls Legal Cooperative in San Francisco; Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone is a private investigator in Santa Teresa (in reality Santa Barbara) California; and Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski calls Chicago home. Interspersed into the writers' conversations are reenactments of passages from their novels, narrated by actress Jobeth Williams. Also included is a brief history of the mystery genre. In the gothic novels of the 18th and 19th centuries, a male hero rescued conventional young women in unconventional situations from peril. In the later "sensation" novels, the heroine was no longer passive. It was the woman who had the potential for violence and the man who often needed rescuing.

Marcia Muller began writing about crime as a reaction to a series of violent events that happened to people around her. Writing about violence provided a way to "ward off fears about the world" and to "bring order to the crime." The potential for violence exists in all of us and the author's "alter-ego," Sharon McCone, is no exception. She too must choose how to respond to this primal urge. Also for Muller, all past actions come to bear on the present. Through the character of Kinsey Milhone, Sue Grafton examines what underlies the aberrant behavior of the criminal and how crime connects people. For this author writing is about telling the truth and facing one's inadequacies. At one point when she felt her writing had become flat, Grafton worked with a psychologist to try to reach her "shadow" self, or dark side, the opposite of her "ego" or public persona. Her stories and characters are influenced by events from her past, in particular her relationship with her father. Sarah Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski, the "quintessential urban character," is a product of South Chicago. V. I. says and does things that Paretsky herself can't. Through the courage and strength of her character and her actions, the author gives "a voice" to other women and "provides speech for those who have long been silent." When Paretsky tries to include personal and emotional issues in her writing, it slows down the process.

All three writers demonstrated the meticulous research that goes into their novels. Marcia Muller's need to have the reader know the history of the people and locations in her novels prompted her to learn how to fly an airplane since one of her characters is a pilot. She also built a scale model of All Souls Legal Cooperative down to the furniture in each room. Sue Grafton visited a coroner's office to research one of her books. In her quest for accuracy, Sarah Paretsky has explored abandoned buildings and actually found a house in a South Chicago neighborhood that exactly fits her image of V.I. Warshawski's bungalow.

This film does a very nice job of providing insight into why these three women write and how their life experiences and personal philosophies have found a voice in their unique and realistic heroines. Highly recommended for libraries with mystery and women's literature collections.