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From Radiance
Summer 1999

 

by Lynne Murray

I_love_a_mystery The urge to write a book with an attractive large heroine hit me just at the moment when a book I threw hit the wall. I am an avid mystery reader who also writes mysteries.

By Lynne Murray

Dorothy Cannell’s 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).

Selma Eichler 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 (both Penguin).

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).

Anne George 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.

Laura Lippman’s 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.

Lynne Murray 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. Martins Press).

Barbara Neely’s 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).

Kathleen Taylor’s 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 by Avon.

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
/murraymade/
).

Muder on a Girl's Night OutThe 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 pounds."

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 town.

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 shoulder."

Looking for other positive role models in mystery fiction, I did find some. (See the list on page 46.)

Radiance 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 morally suspect.

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.

Blood Will TellThe 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?

Muder on a Bad Hair DayWriter 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.


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