By Lynne Murray
mysteries feature Ellie Haskel, an interior designer in Chittenden
Falls, England. Ellie is fat only in the first book, The Thin Woman (reissued
by Bantam in 1992).
gives us the Desiree Shapiro series about a plus-size New York private
investigator, starting with Murder Can Kill Your Social Life
(1994) and continuing up to her 1998 Murder Can Spook Your Cat
A. A. Fair is the
pen name of Earl Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason. He wrote
twenty-nine books about Bertha Cool, legendary large and in-charge
tough-gal P.I. with a heart of gold. The series begins with The
Bigger They Come (1939, reissued in 1984 by Quill Press) and ends
with Not All Grass Is Green (1970, Morrow). The series is
currently out of print, but can be found in libraries and used
bookstores (also try www.bibliofind.com).
writes the Patricia Ann and Mary Alice series about two sisters in
Alabama. One is a petite retired schoolteacher; the other is a BBW who
owns a country western bar. The series begins with Murder on a Girls’
Night Out (1996); the most recent is Murder Gets a Life
(1998). The series is published by Avon.
Terris McMahan Grimes’s
heroine Theresa Galloway is a plus-size African-American state employee
in Sacramento, California, whose mother gets her involved in
investigating dangerous doings in the old neighborhood. Somebody Else’s
Child (1996) won two Mystery Writers of America Edgar Awards: one
for best novel and one for best paperback original. It and Grime’s
second book, Blood Will Tell (1997), are published by Penguin.
reluctant private investigator, Tess Monaghan, is a former reporter for
a Baltimore newspaper. Monaghan is a recovering bulimic who lifts
weights and has made peace with a body that is larger than she would
prefer. The series includes Charm City (1997), Baltimore Blues
(1997), and Butcher’s Hill (1998), are all published by Avon.
G. A. McKevett
writes about Savannah Reid, private detective and "Georgia
peach" living in San Carmelita, California: Just Desserts
(1995), Bitter Sweets (1996), and Killer Calories (1997),
all published by Kensington.
gives us the Josephine Fuller series about a woman of size who doesn’t
apologize. Fuller works as a troubleshooter for a philanthropist in Larger
Than Death (1997, Orloff) and Large Target (forthcoming, St.
Blanche White is strong-minded, substantial African-American cleaning
woman and accidental sleuth who encounters homicides while trying to
support her late sister’s two children. Read about her in Blanche
on the Lam (1992, Penguin), Blanche among the Talented Tenth
(1994, Penguin), and Blanche Cleans Up (1998, Viking).
Julie Smith is
the author of the Skip Langdon series, featuring a New Orleans
policewoman whose large size and profession cause friction within her
high-society family. The series begins with New Orleans Morning
(1991, Ivy); its most recent story is 82 Desire (1998, Fawcett).
Tory Bauer, aplus-size waitress with a lively wit and a love life to
match, lives in a small town in South Dakota. There are four paperbacks
in this series; the first is Sex and Salmonella (1996), and the
most recent is The Mourning Shift (1999). The series is published
An expanded version of this
list, including male and female sleuths and villains of size in
mysteries past and current, can be found on Lynne Murray’s web site (http://members.aol.com
book I’d been reading was by one of my favorite authors, but she found
it amusing to have her private eye worry that the elevator would break
under the burden of an old woman "who must have weighed over 200
That week I’d had a routine checkup where the doctor’s
scale put me at quite a bit more than 200 pounds and a waiting-room
magazine told me that Arnold Schwarzenegger weighed the same as I did. I
doubt that the fictional narrator of the book whose spine I’d broken
would hesitate a moment to get into an elevator with Arnold. But a taboo
line is crossed if a woman weighs more than 200 pounds. Sidewalks cave
in and ordinary citizens flee as if Godzilla had come stomping into
As a large woman gradually coming to accept and honor
my own body, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the way
mystery fiction treats fat characters. Before I picked that book up off
the floor, I decided that my new heroine would be a large woman who
refused to accept any abuse.
And so the first sentence of Larger Than Death
reads, "My name is Josephine Fuller and I’ve never weighed less
than 200 pounds in my adult life—not counting the chip on my
Looking for other positive role models in mystery
fiction, I did find some. (See the list on page 46.)
profiled one of them in a wonderful article about Bertha Cool a few
years ago. Under the pen name of A. A. Fair, Earl Stanley Gardner wrote
twenty-nine books about big, brassy Bertha, who ran a detective agency
with the help of her smart-alecky bantamweight errand guy, Donald Lam.
All the Bertha Cool books are out of print, but when I tracked down a
couple in a used bookstore, I found that Bertha confesses she gained all
that weight on purpose to spite her cheating ex-husband and the male
population in general. The first Bertha Cool book was written in 1939,
and clearly the author bought into this ugly myth—as some people do to
this day. One of the reasons I wanted to write about a large heroine was
to combat such misinformation.
Mysteries reflect the society of their time. In this
age of political correctness, readers have grown largely intolerant of
intolerance. One exception is fat characters, who may be battered at
will for a laugh. The kind of casual insults still aimed at large
characters and the instant villain status of large characters echo the
now-unacceptable slurs once aimed at blacks, Asians, Latinos, gays,
lesbians, and women by many mystery writers from the 1920s on even into
the 1960s. Nowadays, any character described as fat may safely be
assumed to be weak, incompetent, lazy, fundamentally disgusting, and
I asked some other mystery fans to help me compile a
list of large-size mystery characters and the titles of the books in
which they appear. I found that asking such a question gives an
interesting readout on people’s attitudes about size.
Some of their suggestions were about characters who
started out large and then lost weight. A good example is The Thin
Woman by Dorothy Cannell, a perennial best-seller. The heroine is
Ellie, a bright, funny, resourceful large woman who hires an escort to
pretend to be her fiancé for a weekend in her rich uncle’s country
home. When the uncle dies suspiciously and leaves the home and his
fortune to Ellie and her supposed husband-to-be, provided that she lose
sixty pounds, Ellie loses weight and the hired escort falls in love with
her. It’s a modern fairy tale. In subsequent books, Ellie is terrified
that she will gain the weight back and lose her husband. I find these
later books painful, because Ellie’s considerable wit is directed at
putting herself down, and her insecurity is no fun at all.
magical-weight-loss fantasy frequently seems to be the only way in which
some authors can bring on a character of size. Having exploded this
fantasy in my own life, I have no wish to revisit it in fiction. After
dieting continuously from age nine to age thirty, I proved to myself
that maintaining my body at the size society demands is either
impossible or dangerously unhealthy. A fantasy story about a woman who
can do this carries the unvoiced judgment that I should be back in that
hopeless cycle of diet, regain weight; diet, regain weight; and so on.
A great mystery novel reflects modern women’s
conflicts about food, exercise, and body image. The taboo in mysteries
that feature women once was sex. Now it is food. Mystery heroines who
cheerfully go to bed with police officers, murder suspects, or even
mobsters are afraid to sleep under the same roof with donuts. Readers
must wade through paragraphs of explanation that it was really okay for
our heroine to eat that bagel because she didn’t have cream cheese
with it, and furthermore, she had already jogged two miles that morning.
(There are too many of this type of book to list!)
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 femalebonding.
Authors try to make their heroines more likable to readers by using a
tactic that they see in the coffee-break rooms of American businesses
every day: the sad kind of communion women share in obsessing about
every bite or complaining about not being able to fit into clothing that
has not fit in years. How can a my-stery heroine be resourceful enough
to solve a murder if she can’t figure out how to buy jeans one size
larger than usual?
Laura Lippman’s sleuth is ex-reporter turned private eye and
recovering bulimic turned weight lifter Tess Monaghan. Like Julie Smith’s
big, strapping New Orleans female police officer Skip Langdon, these
days Tess may be considered to be "overweight," although
previous generations might have described both of these heroines as
"a fine figure of a woman."
|Lippman told me
about a session she had with other female mystery writers who all
laughingly confessed that the heroines of their books were two inches
taller and twenty pounds lighter than the authors. Of course, that’s
why we read as well as write. These authors chose to vicariously
experience this cultural moment’s idea of "the perfect body"
through their characters. These heroines either work out with a Jane
Fonda–like obsessiveness or have that rare, magical
"perfect" metabolism. (I must plead guilty to this offense in
my first published mystery, Termination Interview, in which my
freelance photographer heroine studies Aikido to ward off bad guys,
including an abusive ex-husband.)
It’s time for some new myths. I am interested in
stories about characters who get down to business and simply solve
crimes now, without waiting around for a new dress size. In the past few
years, several mystery writers have broken through stereotypes to give
us attractive and capable heroines of size.
Selma Eichler’s Desiree Shapiro is a long-awaited
heir to Bertha Cool, a plus-size private investigator in New York.
Desiree is more playful and flirtatious than Bertha, who was
blisteringly tough, though she had a heart of gold. Desiree also does
her own investigations, without needing a Donald Lam to do her legwork.
Kathleen Taylor’s heroine, Tory Bauer, is a widowed
waitress and woman of size who lives, works, and solves crimes in South
Dakota. She has a no-nonsense attitude, an active love life, and a wit
as sharp as steak house cutlery. Another heroine worth knowing is the
flamboyantly rich and seductive Mary Alice, the plus-size half of Anne
George’s sister team of sleuths, one petite and the other ample, who
live and solve mysteries in Alabama.
Barbara Neely’s three novels featuring Blanche White
and Terris McMahan Grimes’s series starring Theresa Galloway give us
African-American heroines who wear the same dress size (16) and who deal
with overbearing mothers in different ways.
Neely’s Blanche does domestic work and solves murder
mysteries while struggling to raise her late sister’s two children,
despite constant interference from her "take-charge" mother.
Blanche finds power in her investigative skills: "She liked
sticking her nose in where it wasn’t supposed to be and finding out
things other people didn’t want her to know. She liked doing this the
way some people liked jogging or dancing or going to the mall."
Grimes’s Theresa works as a personnel director for
the state government. Al-though she has a husband and two teenage kids,
she finds herself often riding off to rescue her mother, who has a
weakness for poking into dangerous situations while trying to solve all
the problems in their Sacramento neighborhood—one crisis at a time.
Because I need to read mysteries just slightly less
urgently than I need to eat, sleep, and breathe, I am delighted to see
more positive plus-size characters coming along. As a woman of size and
a mystery writer, I feel very happy to have reached the point in my own
self-acceptance where I can see and write about subjects that many other
writers still don’t know how to look at.
For example, in my own book Larger Than Death,
Josephine Fuller is pitted against a serial killer who targets large
women. This allowed me to examine some of the roots of the bizarre,
unreasoning hatred that fat women seem to inspire in some pathetic
individuals. In the sequel, Large Target, which I have just finished,
the story pivots on body-image issues between mother and daughter. Right
now, in a book I’m calling Lucille at Large, I’m writing a mystery
about a man in love with a plus-size woman and a family who tries to
keep them apart—"forher own good."
Our large bodies and our large stories have been
hidden for a long time. We need to learn how to look at them and talk
about them. There are many, many stories that could happen only to a fat
woman. Finally, we are starting to hear some of them. ©
LYNNE MURRAY was born in Decatur, Illinois, and
raised in Texas, Alaska, Washington, and Southern California. She now
lives in San Francisco. The Josephine Fuller series began in hardback
with Larger Than Death from Orloff Press. In summer 2000, St.
Martin’s will publish the paperback of Larger Than Death and
the hardback of its sequel, Large Target: a tale of a kidnapped
admiral with a largely dysfunctional family in San Diego.
this is only a taste of what's inside the printed version of the