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Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy: Feminist crime fiction at the millennium

Vanacker, Sabine


Sabine Vanacker


Ken Gelder


Appearing in the late 1970s, feminist crime fiction arose out of a distinctive social context, the political, social and cultural sea change brought about by the second feminist wave. As Maureen Reddy suggests, ‘[f]eminist literary criticism, feminism as a social movement and feminist crime novels have grown up together, so to speak’ (Reddy 1990, p. 174). Of course, crime fiction and crime writing have always, and inevitably so, been enmeshed with a discourse on gender: any narrative of crime and transgression unavoidably invites comparison with the behaviour and roles associated with ‘orthodox’ masculinity and femininity. However, the Women’s Liberation Movement, as it grew of the civil rights movements and the revolutionary 1960s in both the USA and Europe, explicitly established a gender critique in many societal and cultural fields. Second-wave feminism found a reflection in the work of P.D. James, who published a surprisingly early, slyly gender-subversive novel, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, in 1972. More substantial and long-lasting were the crime series appearing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, by Marcia Muller (Edwin of the Iron Shoes, 1977), Sue Grafton (A is for Alibi, 1982), Sara Paretsky (Indemnity Only, 1982) and Barbara Wilson (Murder in the Collective, 1984). Many of these placed their feminist detective protagonists in hardboiled or noir private eye narratives, a unique and effective example of feminist counter-discourse inserted into a frequently sexist or misogynist genre. The feminist message, however, merged well with hardboiled and noir fiction’s fundamentally anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment outlook. As Priscilla Walton and Manina Jones point out, feminist hardboiled crime fiction of the second wave foregrounded the ‘distinctive voice of an empowered female subject’ (1999, p. 4). Its policewomen and private investigators, such as Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski or Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, were professional women, confident, assertive, resilient, committed and single-minded. Defeating patriarchal, sexist or misogynist opponents, they also became utopian figures of female agency and power, strongly asserting—in novel after novel—‘women’s ability to exercise individual and collective agency’ (p. 3), a particularly powerful thing to do given the genre’s convention of first-person narration (p. 55).


Vanacker, S. (2016). Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy: Feminist crime fiction at the millennium. In K. Gelder (Ed.), New directions in popular fiction: Genre, distribution, reproduction (223-238). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Online Publication Date Nov 23, 2016
Publication Date 2016
Deposit Date May 20, 2019
Publisher Palgrave Macmillan
Pages 223-238
Book Title New directions in popular fiction: Genre, distribution, reproduction
ISBN 978-1-137-52346-4
Public URL
Publisher URL