Right-ons

Jenny Turner

  • Gaudi Afternoon by Barbara Wilson
    Virago, 172 pp, £4.99, August 1991, ISBN 1 85381 264 1
  • The players come again by Amanda Cross
    Virago, 229 pp, £12.99, August 1991, ISBN 1 85381 306 0
  • Poetic Justice by Amanda Cross
    Virago, 176 pp, £4.99, August 1991, ISBN 1 85381 025 8
  • Birth Marks by Sarah Dunant
    Joseph, 230 pp, £13.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 7181 3511 3
  • Burn Marks by Sara Paretsky
    Virago, 340 pp, £4.99, April 1991, ISBN 1 85381 279 X
  • Deep Sleep by Frances Fyfield
    Heinemann, 198 pp, £13.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 434 27426 7

If you are a woman who loves women, and Latin American magic realist blockbusters, and if you’ve been to Barcelona for a brief holiday recently, Barbara Wilson’s Gaudi Afternoon is just the novel for you. It has a great new heroine, Cassandra Reilly, an Irish-American dyke of fortysomething, who seems to spend her life sorting out people’s problems here and there, translating the odd thing from the Spanish and having a girlfriend or two in every port of call. Cassandra has wit, a pleasant writing-style, and a good ear for dialogue. She has a cool way of filling you in on just enough detail about her chosen setting to let you know she’s read slightly more historico-architectural guides to Barcelona, dallied somewhat longer around the bars of the Gothic Barrio, the sloping paths and ceramic follies of the Parc Güell, than you have. And the extracts she lets you in on from La Grande y Su Hija, the book she’s translating at the moment, take the piss very prettily from the wilder excesses of the Eighties translations-from-the-Spanish boom.

Although Gaudi Afternoon is marketed under Virago’s crime imprint, it isn’t really a crime novel at all. It is an ably-managed piece of plot-driven pulp with a mystery in it, crafted as carefully as an advert to appeal to certain target audiences. It’s a novel that affirms lesbians, by showing that lesbians – i.e. Cassandra – can be as rampantly, glamorously promiscuous as any James Bond, without being insensitive to the feelings of the women they leave. And it’s a novel that affirms women, by showing that women – i.e. Cassandra – don’t have to be fey and nymphlike in order to get loved. And it’s a novel that affirms the bohobeatnik lifestyle by suggesting that people – i.e. Cassandra – don’t have to have a private income in order to spend their lives globetrotting, sorting out people’s problems and drinking cafe con leche in interesting little bars. Gaudi Afternoon is, in short, a ‘right-on’ leisure novel, an example of the one new fictional genre to get born in Britain in the last ten years.

Right-on leisure novels, published under such imprints as Virago Crime, Pluto Crime, Women’s Press Science Fiction, form a movement that has been growing in popularity over the last half-dozen years. The idea behind them is simple. Pulp writing, easy-to-read plot-driven detective-stories, thrillers, Science Fiction, romance, is popular, powerful and fun, but stuffed with sinister subliminal messages about deviance and social order. Because liberal readers, influenced by university socialism, feminism, anti-racism and so on, find such stuff offensive, a new market for fun fiction catering to their sensitive tastes has opened up. And because such readers are precisely the people whose disposable wealth was greatly enhanced by the false-spring media and finance boom of the Eighties, small, independent publishers, able to expand thanks to the self-same boom, fall over themselves to plug the gap. Virago Crime, Women’s Press Science Fiction, and a welter of smaller, now failed imprints, were and are a mixture of the odd inspired reprint, a lot of ‘rediscovered’ second-raters, and new material commissioned under the right-on rubric. Gaudi Afternoon is, in its merry way, a classic of the form.

Feminist Science Fiction, with its potential for positing new worlds and wild speculations, is a very fruitful form, but it has never shifted sales in the way that right-on thrillers, and feminist thrillers in particular, do. A few early right-ons, like Barbara Wilson’s Murder in the Collective (1985, and probably the novel that established the genre as a whole), Nigel Fountain’s Days like these (1985, from the now-defunct Pluto crime list) and Sara Schulman’s marvellous The Sophie Horowitz Story (published in 1984 by a small lesbian press in the US, and now published here by Sheba Feminist Publishing) still make interesting reading as socialist-feminist historical novels in the tradition of Chernyshevsky. Set around co-ops, collectives and communes, rich in the idealist politics of Seventies-type marginal activists, such books never had much chance of getting read by any but the already initiated. But at least they are honest about their limited appeal, and say what’s on their minds. Newer stuff like Gaudi Afternoon has little to do with politics and little, come to that, to do with crime. The four right-ons under review – two Amanda Crosses, a Sarah Dunant and a Barbara Wilson – have only two murders to rub between them. And neither of the murders which actually happen, and none of the feeble misdemeanours used as plot-devices in murder’s place, have anything to do with money. If anything, they are prompted by infelicities of love – and by nice, kind agape rather than smutty old eros.

Thrillers without even a touch of cupidity aren’t very thrilling. Right-ons aim to gratify readers by offering them wish-fulfilment fantasy figures in the form of the right-on feminist detective: strong, beautiful, witty, unsullied by criminal dealings and freed from the tiresome necessity of ever doing any real work. Amanda Cross’s Kate Fansler is a lady of private means and an English professor at Columbia to boot, so that is her excuse for living the life of Reilly. But both Wilson and Dunant’s heroines are unattached bohemians who have the street-credible attitudes of the poor, while appearing to live life as a series of holiday snapshots. In The players come again, Kate Fansler goes to London, where she spends her time eating steak-and-kidney pudding and drinking beer in a goode olde Hampstead pub. When Dunant’s Hannah Wolfe finds herself following a trail to the Paris suburb of Roissy – nice and handy for the airport – she immediately sets out on a bicycle with a half-bottle of red wine, some frontage and a baguette, and spends an evening playing eye-contact games with a bilingual Jean-Paul Belmondo look-alike in an Armani suit.

Like most people’s holiday snaps, such glimpses into the good life are clicheé’d and dull. They are also depressingly limited: give a feminist fantasy-figure every advantage in life, and this is all she can do with it? Bourgeois wish-fulfilment like this – unlike more straightforward pulpy fantasies about limitless sex, security, power or whatever – is loaded with moral judgment. The assumption is that to live the good life – nice food, nice wine, nice friends, nice dinner-parties and a nice holiday in France or Italy or anywhere except Beni-dorm – is the same as living the good life in an ethical or political sense. This is of course precisely the lie peddled endlessly by advertisements, Hollywood, glossy magazines and everything else right-ons affect to despise.

These novels attempt to reconcile the gap between right-on pretension and their comfortable reality through a weak sort of self-deprecating irony: we know we should be serious, but you’ve got to laugh sometimes, haven’t you? In other words, the distinguishing feature of these newer novels is that they try to be funny all the time. And they are quite funny, but in a peculiarly irritating way. Carolyn Heilbrun, who writes as Amanda Cross, is an English professor at Columbia University, so she stuffs her books with clever literary jokes. Poetic Justice smacks of Auden, and the entire plot of The players come again concerns an invented lost Modernist woman writer. Both Wilson and Dunant specialise in hard-boiled first-person one-liners, which pretend to be hard-bitten and self-deflating but actually shriek ‘Look at me, aren’t I fabulous.’ It is the wit mote than anything which knocks any idea that right-ons are at all socially engaged firmly on the head. With real, seriously-intended and well-written literature, no matter how rebarbative it may at first appear, there is always the possibility that it can spark some of its energy onto anyone who picks it up. But smirky little in-jokes can only ever work to exclude everybody for whom they are not designed. And, to be perfectly clear, this means anybody who is not a middle-class, well-educated, politically-correct liver of the good life. And it means anybody who has a problem with the whole theory and practice of idle, complacent life-style-massage.

Until recently, Amanda Cross was Virago Crime’s best-selling author by far. Now, however, she has been taken over by Sara Paretsky, author to date of 11 low-rent crime thrillers featuring private eye V.I. Warshawski, or Vic for short. It’s easy to understand why readers like Vic so much, especially when you compare her to other feminist dicks on offer. Vic deals with real live murders, for one thing. And she’s thoroughly rooted in something approximating to a real world. A single woman in her late thirties, Vic, like Paretsky, is an ex-insurance officer gone freelance. She’s of Polish extraction and her dad was a cop, so she has plenty of relatives and contacts from both sides of the law for ever popping up to give her advice and/or grief. She lives in an apartment in an old Chicago building with troublesome neighbours, and frets about keeping it tidy. And, most winningly, she definitely works with money. Her cases start out as unglamorous insurance jobs, and she’s constantly checking in with her answering service in the hope of finding new commissions. She knows her city’s bent cops, corrupt politicians, leaky journalists and criminal real-estate developers which means that she can get going a good, multi-layered and likely scam of a plot.

Sara Paretsky is not one of the great contemporary American crime writers. The plot of Burn Marks is dull, and Vic, though lovable enough, is also fairly flat. But Paretsky’s a woman in a very male field, and she’s a good enough American crime writer, and she’s an American crime writer full stop: more than enough good reasons to explain her popular and critical acclaim. Of course, when it comes to writing the sort of thrillers people want to read these days, Americans have a head start. Their native hard-boiled crime tradition has never been allowed to ossify in the manner of English country-house murders, but has been in continuous evolution, both in fiction and in the cinema, since it was invented by Dashiell Hammett in the Twenties. And the dominant aesthetic in American art, from Walt Whitman to Lou Reed, has always been most powerful when adopting the perspective of outsider, underclass and little people: precisely the perspective needed for socially engaged crime. Engaged writing, classical realist writing and writing rich in popular-cultural mythic resource can easily be made to be one and the same thing for American writers.

The dominant aesthetic of contemporary English writing, on the other hand, is still Dickensian. Rather than aiming to get a picture of a locality, an institution, a person, writers as apparently different as Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell and Martin Amis go for atmosphere, seizing on simple strong images, then orchestrating and art-directing them until they pervade every aspect of a novel like a smell (the mixed metaphors of this sentence perfectly express the sensory confusion so resulting). It’s a powerful device, but one with the unfortunate side-effect of rendering even supposedly real places as unlocatable film-sets and turning most characters into cardboard-cut-out grotesques. The strengths and the weaknesses of this process can be seen with copybook clarity in the work of Frances Fyfield, an accomplished young English thriller-writer and the natural heir to Rendell’s crown.

Deep Sleep, Fyfield’s fifth novel since 1988, is set in the shops and flats and terraces around an East End of London pharmacist, somewhere probably like Chrisp Street Market in Poplar. Its main metaphor has to do with chloroform and ether, and its every sentence, its every evocation of character and scene, has a marvellously well-done blurry, languorous feel. Beneath this smokescreen, however, Fyfield’s characterisations and situations are, like Agatha Christie’s and Ruth Rendell’s, dismally hidebound. The villain is an aspiring chemist born into the working class, who murders his wife because he hates sex. He hates sex because he was sexually abused by women as a child. There is something tacky about the way his assistant, Kim, a buxom, very together young woman of the working class, often enters with the word ‘intelligent’ round her neck: why does intelligence in a working-class woman have to be remarked on, as if it were unusual or surprising? Kim’s husband, a police officer, is a heavy-drinking ‘big handsome ape’, her son an anti-social mess. Meanwhile the detectives, a Crown Prosecutor in her thirties called Helen West and a Detective Superintendent in his forties called Geoffrey Bailey, reign confident and wonderful over so much lower-class misery and decay.

If it sounds as though I’ve given away too much of the plot, I haven’t. Fyfield’s novels, like Ruth Rendell’s before her, depend, not on whodunnit or even why, but on how. The villain’s identity is obvious from the first page. By his monstrous psychopathology shall you know him. The pleasure, in novels like this, comes from tracing the webs of intersubjectivity that build until finally everybody knows as much as you do. And the real pleasure of Frances Fyfield comes not from the mysteries of her plot but from the far subtler mystery of Helen and Geoffrey, law-enforcement professionals, sometime detectives and passionate lovers.

Fyfield’s rendition of Helen and Geoffrey’s relationship is extraordinary. From the minute we first come across Geoffrey – ‘living in Helen’s flat without Helen’s presence ... an odd sensation which he rather liked as long as he knew she was safe ... He knew better than to question any arrangement which worked, most of the time’ – we are let in on a marvellously sensitive depiction of modern love among the early middle-aged, chastened, insecure, wise to all the tricks. Helen West must be to some extent a Frances Fyfield self-portrait (in real life Fyfield herself is a Crown Prosecutor). The many passages about Helen’s wonderfulness – the way ‘case clerks, typists ... disgruntled doormen et al would all sidle in [to her office] because they knew how much they could widen her eyes with their gossip or their problems’ – would become tiresomely self-regarding were they not handled with such perception and elegance. Writing thrillers is often taken on as a hobby by people frightened to take the leap into self-expression without the safety-net of a predetermined form. But Fyfield is a fine writer in danger of becoming constrained by the hokeyness of her plots.

Frances Fyfield’s work is at bottom standard English Sunday-supplement fare. But it works perfectly on its own terms, and Helen and Geoffrey’s relationship gives it the little extra buzz that makes it well worth reading by people who care little for standard English thrillers. In their own ways, Sara Paretsky and Frances Fyfield both show just how wrong-headed the right-ons are. Not despite but because both are deeply traditional, even unadventurous writers, both produce work which is, at the least, gripping and fun to read. Both Helen West’s fabulously understanding relationship with her Geoffrey, and Vic’s feistiness, are unimaginable without woman’s liberation, but in neither of these novels is it assumed that their being right-on makes them likable. Since being right-on is an appallingly smug turn-off, this is just as well.