Today’s Los Angeles Times pays tribute, in a lengthy profile, to MWA Grandmaster Marcia Muller, who created the first female private eye, Sharon McCone, blazing a trail that Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and others have followed with great success.
"McCone’s development is kind of the history of where women were from the ’70s
to the ’80s, where we were still fumbling our ways into some of these roles,"
says Paretsky, whose Chicago private detective V.I. Warshawski debuted in 1982.
"The year I published my first book was the first year the Chicago police force
let women be part of the regular force, as opposed to matrons. It’s kind of hard
to believe it’s only been 20 years and everybody takes [female police] so much
It’s likely, critics say, that modern female hard-boiled
detectives would have entered fiction without Muller, though probably a few
years later. "What we were looking for in our culture were models for how women
could best be not only strong emotionally, but more independent and alone — like
Raymond Chandler’s concept of man defining himself," said Jerrilyn Farmer, who
teaches mystery writing through the UCLA Extension and is the author of seven
Los Angeles-based mysteries featuring caterer Madeline Bean.
there first, an arrival she ascribes to luck: She found a willing publisher,
though it took her four more years to sell her second book. And while Muller has
been successful, with about 3.5 million books in print, her readership pales
next to that of Grafton, author of 17 Millhone novels, the last four of which
have nearly matched Muller’s career sales, according to estimates by Publishers
Grafton, though, credits Muller with helping make her own success
"She paved the way for the rest of us," Grafton says. "She was
doing what had not been done. I know there are antecedents in terms of other
women doing mystery fiction years before, but Sharon McCone recast the part. She
sort of brought us into the 20th century."
7 thoughts on “Marcia Muller”
This isn’t really relevant to -this- post, but as you just mentioned Hot Button Topics, and one of your Goldberg Boys slammed Mary Higgens Clark (and don’t get me started on her daughter), is Sue Grafton not one of the crappier writers of mystery, particulary on a per-copies-sold basis? The smug character, the exhausted plots, the stuck-in-the-80s-timeline. Bleh.
What exactly is wrong with a timeline that stays in one decade? Historical fiction does it all the time. I actually admire her for deciding that and sticking to it.
Of course, I also haven’t read any of her books, so maybe I’d feel differently if I’d read some.
Not to quibble — well, okay, it is quibbling — but Sharon McCone was hardly the first female private eye. Bertha Cool, Honey West, Mavis Seidlitz, Carrie Cashin, and others with varying degrees of success were there first.
You’re right, of course. So why is Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone considered such a ground-breaking achievement in the field? Not just by critics and historians, but by our leading female mystery writers (Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, etc.)
Muller’s work was more influential than that of the earlier, mostly male authors who wrote about female private eyes. It was her success with Sharon McCone that inspired other female authors to create female private eyes, something that didn’t happen when Gloria Fickling co-authored the Honey West books. So in that sense Muller’s work was ground-breaking. The “first female private eye” line probably came from a review or an article written by someone who didn’t know any better, and it’s been repeated so often that it’s come to be one of those accepted bits of conventional wisdom that’s not true.
Muller gets the credit for writing the first decent female PI. I don’t think too many folks are clamoring for Honey West these days (a series co-written by a man).
_As a classic mystery fan, I wish to point out two relatable short-story collections:
1) (1946) The Great Women Detectives and Criminals edited by Ellery Queen – The Female of the Species.
2) (1986) Hard-Boiled Dames edited by Bernard Drew. This features stories from the 1930s.
_Black Mask magazine itself was also edited by a woman, Fanny Ellsworth, for some time.