Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Mystery and Cultural Mores

My internet connection and I have been fighting with each other since the move, with the result that I've found it necessary to turn to other forms of entertainment. Namely, the paperback mystery.

Now, there are paperbacks and there are paperbacks. I was irritated to hear someone brag about the vast amount of books crammed into her home library, when I knew that the vast majority of those books were Christian romances and 17-part fantasy series. The mysteries I've been reading are drawn from a cardboard box of books that my sister inherited from my grandfather. There are several different authors represented: Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe series, Catherine Aird for your British fix, and Mary Roberts Rinehart, considered the source of the phrase "The butler did it", though Wikipedia informs me that she never actually used that formulation. I've been working my way through Mrs. Rinehart's corpus, which I find ideal for entertainment purposes: she likes twists and turns, and she doesn't provide enough information for the reader to solve the crime before the sleuth du jour, so one might as well just relax and go along for the ride.

Mary Roberts Rinehart wrote from about 1909 to 1945 (at least, that's the span of the volumes I've read so far) and her works are decidedly popular -- the back of one of the books touts her as the "top suspense writer of all time!" That's in terms of sales, I suppose; I can appreciate her style but I've definitely read better suspense. More fascinating to me is the window she provides on the cultural attitudes and assumptions of her day. These are not scholarly novels, nor historical recreations: each is set in the present and reflects, I assume, the standards of the day.

What shocks me (more than the shocking crimes!) is the rampant sexism in the books. I've experienced precious little discrimination in my time because I'm a woman, and the strata of society I've always moved in is pretty uniform. Given that milieu, it's easy to forget that the reason people fought so hard to combat the glass ceiling is because there were such deep-seated prejudices -- prejudices that have been so successfully eradicated, in some segments of society, that now I have the luxury of dismissing those who cry "Sexist!" as the press conference poseurs they usually are. However, I find myself blinking in amazement when, in a 1942 volume, the nurse protagonist is frequently called "Good girl!" by the police inspector, who clearly has feelings for her and at one point threatens to turn her over his knee if she doesn't keep out of danger. The nurse, a no-nonsense type, reminisces at one point about her training in the hospital, when she had to fend off the interns intent on making a pass at her or backing her into a dark closet for a kiss. She presents this as a simple memory of fact, not as a grievance or a sensational anecdote. This is not PC, and for once I don't mean that in a derogatory sense. (And I haven't even touched on the racial attitudes on display.)

Frequently, the females at the center of the cases are either spinsters, which means they can be fairly competent, or the lovely brunette in need of assistance from the capable investigator: "She thrilled to the protective tone in his voice," and all that. Mrs. Rinehart writes amusingly, and her books are jam-packed with plot, and for that matter I find plenty of cultural complaints with books written in 2010. Maybe the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, but I'm glad that the literary over-idealization of the helpless beauty and the paternal protectionist attitude is a thing of the past.


Steven said...

Dear Mrs. Darwin,

I dearly love Mary Roberts Rinehart--who is the origin and the apex of the "had I but known" school of the mystery. Had I but known then, what I know now.

They were favorites of my mothers and remain a favorite with me.



Ann said...

I work in a hospital. Things have not changed a bit!

RL said...

What's wrong with saying "good girl"? Praise is nice, and I happen to think chicks should be praised often. Would we really be better off saying something like "your performance was somewhat above average, oh she of the female gender"?

Anonymous said...

"Good job" would be better.


Mrs. Zummo said...

Wow, I totally agree with Joel. "Good Girl" is what I say to the dog.

RL said...

Thanks Joel. I told a coworker "good job sweetheart" and she seemed quite honored.

CMinor said...

...and at one point threatens to turn her over his knee if she doesn't keep out of danger.

Gee, I don't recall anybody ever trying that sort of nonsense with Miss Marple. I guess when you've made it into your seventies (surviving two world wars) and wield knitting needles they think better of it. (It suddenly occurs to me--Margaret Rutherford was the original film Miss Marple. I can't see any sexist males messing with her, either.)

Joseph said...

I've been informed that women working near the UN have to know the word "no" in several different languages. (On the other hand, this was in the 1970s.)