(Faber & Faber 1987 / Vintage 1995)
These are two detective novels by feminist writer Joan Smith featuring academic Loretta Lawson as her sleuth. The titles, therefore, are rather ironic, considering Smith celebrates women’s independence and friendship in both novels, and treats relationships with men with more ambivalence.
In the first, Loretta is in Paris for a meeting with the editorial collective of a linguistic journal. Staying at a friend’s flat, she comes across a dead body, but when she returns to the flat later, the body has disappeared and all evidence has been cleared up. Unwilling to delay her return to London after the meeting, Loretta fails to report the possible crime to the French police, but later tries to find out who the body might have been and why he was killed. The victim turns out to be an academic at an Oxford college, which Loretta discovers due to a publication about post-structuralism she finds in the Paris flat, but the reason for his death and the identity of the murderer are more difficult to establish, and Loretta doesn’t realise who the murderer is until a final meeting in Paris.
Loretta’s an interesting sleuth and character – it’s hard not to see her as Smith’s alter ego, given her career and relationship choices, though perhaps that’s presumptuous on my part – though she’s not wholly engaging, being very earnest. She tackles the detection with intelligence and intuition, and with the help of her friend, Bridget, and her ex-husband, John, a journalist. Smith also gets in a few side-swipes against the post-structuralist method of literary criticism, and does a bit of feminist consciousness-raising (which reads very oddly to this reader in 2011) by recommending women’s groups to the widow of the murdered man.
In What Men Say, several years have passed (and, I believe, a couple more Loretta Lawson detective novels): Loretta is now living in Oxford, commuting to London to teach, and coping with departmental budget cuts and her friend Bridget’s marriage and pregnancy. I like the way Loretta and Bridget’s friendship is portrayed: it’s realistically changed by Bridget’s changed circumstances, but still strong.
At the house-warming party for Bridget and Sam’s new residence, a very dead body is found, and they find themselves in the midst of a police investigation. Loretta is alarmed by Bridget’s evasions and prevarication: although she doesn’t seriously think Bridget murdered the woman, she does fear that her friend knows more about her death than she’s letting on. Loretta doesn’t seriously investigate the crime, since she’s already mixed up more in the police investigation than she really wants to be, though she doesn’t shrink from getting information from her former husband, who’s reporting the case for his paper. She doesn’t seriously start sleuthing until practically the end of the novel, when the police have arrested Bridget, and Loretta is looking for evidence that will clear her friend.
Although this novel is less dated than A Masculine Ending, there is still an ambivalence about male-female relationships. Loretta is convinced that marriage is often a vehicle for the subjugation of women, is appalled that Bridget is suggesting that her unborn child is given Sam’s surname (though Bridget has reasons other than the ones she states for suggesting this), and implies that she’s sexually naïve (though she’s not inexperienced). It’s also implied that Bridget’s marriage to Sam is the culmination of an unbalanced relationship where he is the dominant partner – and yet Bridget seems like an intelligent woman and feminist: perhaps Smith is suggesting that the cultural baggage which we are all saddled with is more pervasive and difficult to shift than one would think.
Anyway, these are interesting, non-traditional detective novels, with believable and realistic characters, and a strong emphasis on women’s friendships and female empowerment.