Rants & Raves
SLEUTHS OF SIZE, PAST AND PRESENT
By Lynne Murray
[This article was suggested by Tony Pascal of The Paper Chase and originally appeared on the Spring 1997 edition of that online newsletter. It also appeared in the May 1999 issue of oooO Baby BABY.]
Mysteries reflect the society of their time. In an age of political correctness, readers have grown intolerant of intolerance. One exception is fat characters who may be battered at will for a laugh.
Joseph Hansen points out in his essay ("Homosexuals: Universal Scapegoats" in Murder Ink, 1977) "When writers fall back on ugly stereotypes they betray their trust and make an already tough life tougher still."
Oddly enough the casual insults and dehumanization now aimed at large-sized characters is reminiscent of that aimed at blacks, Asians, Latinos, homosexuals and women by many mystery writers of the 30s, 40s and 50s. Any character described as fat may safely be assumed to be weak, incompetent, lazy, fundamentally disgusting and morally suspect.
Much as I love humor, I suspect that when a writer reaches for a "fat joke" it's authorial laziness. Humor doesn't come naturally to some authors and yet tossing off barbed wisecracks is almost a job requirement for hard-boiled detectives. Raymond Chandler points in this direction when he applauds Humphrey Bogart's portrayal of Phillip Marlowe. "[Bogart] has a sense of humor that contains the grating undertone of contempt." (Quoted from Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles). Significantly, however, the classic hard-boiled hero, outnumbered and outgunned, snarls at a group of thugs who have backed him into a corner. He has no weapon but his sneer. The hero's insults are a measure of his unbreakability under pressure.
By contrast, modern hard-boiled sleuths sneer at the drop of a hat hoping to demonstrate their (dubious) toughness. Fat victims fill the bill as acceptable targets—be they well-upholstered clients, heavyweight villains or simply plus-sized waitresses with the misfortune to wait on our hero. This sort of writing is the fictional equivalent of schoolyard bullies who beat up on "the fat kid" because they know many teachers will look the other way or even approve. Anyone who thinks this sort of behavior doesn't still happen in America in the 1990s should look at the news reports of suicides of grammar school age children. In 1997 as in most years, at least two children killed themselves rather than face constant physical and verbal harassment from their peers.
On the cozy mystery front, populated as it is primarily by women, fat-bashing is self-administered. The taboo in mysteries with female protagonists once was sex; now it is food. Mystery heroines, who cheerfully go to bed with policemen, suspects or even mobsters are afraid to sleep under the same roof with donuts. Reader must wade through paragraphs of explanation that it was really okay that our heroine ate that bagel because she didn't have cream cheese with it and furthermore she jogged two miles this morning.
Here again mystery fiction is holding up the mirror to the modern woman's anxious relationship with her body. Sadly, criticizing one's own body has become a ritual of female bonding. Authors try to ingratiate their heroines with readers by using a tactic that they see in coffee break rooms of American businesses every day. This is a sad kind of communion women share in obsessing about not being able to fit into clothing that has not fit in years. How can a mystery heroine be smart enough to solve a murder when she can't figure out how to buy a size larger jeans?
Frustration with this unsavory cultural hash inspired me to create a taboo-breaking heroine Josephine Fuller, who introduces herself by saying "I've never weighed less than 200 pounds in my adult life, not counting the chip on my shoulder." But she is not alone—there are many memorable heroes and villains of size in mystery fiction past and present.
The leader of the pack is Rex Stout's super-sized Nero Wolfe whom Julian Symons praises as "a triumphant Superman detective." Other detectives of size include Gideon Fell, whose creator John Dickson Carr (writing as Carter Dickson) created a second brilliant supersize sleuth, Sir Henry Merrival. Dashiell Hammett's has two good guys of size, the Continental Op and his boss and mentor The Old Man at the Continental Detective Agency—and one unforgettable super-sized villain in Caspar Guttman in The Maltese Falcon. Earl Stanley Gardner writing as A.A. Fair wrote 29 novels with large-sized, hard-boiled Bertha Cool running her own detective agency.
Sidekicks of size include John D. MacDonald's irresistible Meyer, whom his hero, Travis McGee describes as having "the size and pelt of the average Adirondack black bear. He can walk a beach, go into any bar, cross any playground and acquire people the way blue serge picks up lint, and the new friends believe they have known him forever." Jonathan Kellerman's psychiatrist sleuth Alex Delaware's close friend Los Angeles policeman Milo Sturges is a gay fat man who shoots down two stereotypes by having a long-term committed relationship with a very nice doctor despite a monumental lack of fashion sense.
Selma Eichler's Desiree Shapiro is a long-awaited plus-sized private investigator in New York. Heir to Bertha Cool, Desiree is more playful and flirtatious than Bertha—who was blisteringly tough, though with a heart of gold. Desiree also does her own legwork without needing a Donald Lam to run errands.
A special case of a plus-sized heroine is Dorothy Cannell's Ellie Haskell. Introduced in The Thin Woman, Ellie loses weight and finds true love. In subsequent books of the series she is haunted by the possibility of regaining weight and losing her chef husband. Characters who lose weight or obsess about it (Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford went through such a sea change early in the series) seem to me to reflect the myth of the magical weight loss fantasy. I must leave studying "sleuths who obsess about weight or lose weight" to someone else. I am interested in characters who get down to business and simply solve crimes now without waiting around for a new dress size.
Kathleen Taylor's Tory Bauer, a widowed overweight waitress who lives, works and solves crimes in South Dakota is a no-nonsense woman of size as is the plus-sized Mary Ann, half of Anne George's sister team of sleuths one petite and the other ample.
A gray area concerns characters whose creators probably considered them just "comfortable" middle-aged people such as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot or her Ariadne Oliver. George Simenon's Jules Maigret, whose wife was evidently an exceptional cook, also seems to fall into this category. Oddly enough, women who are tall and athletic such as Julie Smith's New Orleans policewoman Skip Langdon or even muscular like Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan may be considered these days as "overweight" although previous generations might have called described them as "a fine figure of a woman."
Joseph Hanson concluded the essay quoted above: "Rarely in life can we know a real human being as completely as we come to know good fictional characters. When a writer scrupulously models his characters on the way men and women really are, he opens to his readers the opportunity to widen and deepen their understanding of others and themselves, and this can only make the world a gentler place for us all."
© Lynne Murray