Hillary Clinton recently made a minor flub on women’s issues. In an article in New York magazine, when asked what books she likes, the candidate said that these days, she’s “into easier things to read. I like a lot of women authors, novels about women, mysteries where a woman is the protagonist.” Jacqueline Winspear and Donna Leon were two authors she cited, women’s cozy mystery writers whose work Clinton said she finds “relaxing.”
“Of course Clinton is no cinnamon-scented Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle,” the article’s author, Rebecca Traister, notes. But that is, indeed, the patronizing image that bedevils female readers of cozy mysteries. The idea that these writers — and “women’s mysteries” in general — are “easier to read” sounds a tad trivializing.
It’s hip to read hard-boileds — novels by the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Lawrence Block, where the lone-wolf detective walks the mean streets of the city, facing down crooks and femmes fatales. It’s often regarded as merely quaint, however, to admit a liking for the milder-mannered cozies, tales of amateur detectives like Charlaine Harris’s Aurora Teagarden, a librarian turned real estate agent who’s forever stumbling on foul deeds in her small town.
I confess, even as a longtime critic who knows the hidden depths of the “cozy” genre, I’ve been occasionally guilty of harboring “Tiggy-Winkle” thoughts when I hear from mystery readers who rhapsodize at length about Maud Silver books or reruns of “Murder, She Wrote.”
Why do women often feel abashed about reading this domesticated kind of detective fiction — chiefly written by and about women — whereas those fans (male and female) of more violent thrillers by, say, Lee Child or David Baldacci never seem to feel the need to apologize?
It’s always been okay for presidents, like Jack Kennedy, to seek escape in something like the James Bond books, techno-heavy tales of all manner of conquest. Many mystery lovers will remember that Bill Clinton proudly flaunted his fondness for action-packed thrillers. Michael Connelly, Walter Mosley, Sara Paretsky and his old Georgetown classmate, Thomas Caplan, were (and presumably still are) particular favorites.
Hillary Clinton has also said she reads some more action-packed books, such as Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series (as well as works by Laura Hillenbrand, Walter Isaacson, Barbara Kingsolver and Alice Walker), but her stated fondness for mysteries by and about women — and in particular cozy series such as the Maisie Dobbs books — subtly undermines her credentials as a potential commander in chief. Such tastes underscore that she’s a woman in late middle age who needs a dose of restorative reading now and again. Somehow, it’s disconcerting to imagine Hillary Clinton closing out a hard day at the Oval Office with a Miss Marple mystery tucked under her arm — especially when she herself seems gently apologetic about such reading.
But that shouldn’t be so. One thing I know about mysteries — even the coziest of cozy mysteries — is that whether or not they’re easier reading, the detectives who star in them never take it easy. Like all mysteries, cozies are, deep down, novels that celebrate hard work.
For instance, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs is a British psychologist, private investigator and a nurse whose ministrations have taken her from the World War I field hospitals of France to those of the Spanish Civil War. The Maisie Dobbs series demonstrates the toll that relentless caretaking took on those women who had to piece together the bodies and minds of the soldiers who survived. In her latest outing, “Journey to Munich,” Maisie travels undercover to Nazi Germany to extract a British subject whose safe return is crucial to Britain’s wartime future. That assignment should be a relief from tying tourniquets and treating bedsores.
The same 24/7 schedule is shouldered by Linda Fairstein’s Alex Cooper, who works as a Manhattan assistant D.A. in the Sex Crimes Unit. In “Killer Look,” her latest adventure, Alex, who’s on leave from the D.A.’s office while she’s recuperating from a brutal kidnapping, gets involved in a murder case that has her racing from the Garment District to the Metropolitan Museum with barely a lunch break. Plugging her way through the alphabet, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone scratches out a living for herself as a private investigator, tirelessly relying on her eyes, wits and fleet feet to solve cases and pay the bills.
And even that relatively sheltered, well-to-do teenager Nancy Drew (whom Hillary has said she avidly read as a girl) barely indulges in any downtime to sample housekeeper Hannah Gruen’s famed chicken salad or acknowledge poor Ned Nickerson’s flirtations. Nancy is forever dashing off through the streets of River Heights and its environs, busting up crime syndicates and restoring stolen inheritances to widows and orphans. The omniscient narrator of the Nancy Drew books is never shy about celebrating our female sleuth’s passion and accomplishments: “Many a problem which had baffled professional mystery-solvers had been cleared up by her keen mind,” notes the 1933 novel “Password to Larkspur Lane.”
Beneath the murder and mayhem, all mystery stories are utopian fantasies about work — work that’s autonomous, personally fulfilling and socially useful; work that’s equally open to women and men because, especially in the cozies, crime-solving is less a matter of brawn than brainpower.
No wonder Hillary Clinton, like so many other hard-working women (and even, perhaps, some men), loves mysteries by and about women. Rather than implicitly apologizing for enjoying these tales of toil and female empowerment, Clinton might take a page from her husband, and profess her special love for female suspense — of all types — with pride. As Nancy Drew and her sisterhood of sleuths remind us, it’s no crime to love mysteries, particularly those that feature women using their smarts to set the world right.
Maureen Corrigan is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air” and teaches literature at Georgetown University.
Michael Dirda is on vacation.