(Editor’s note: This is the 111th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s pick comes from Oregon coast author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, better known to crime-fiction enthusiasts under her pseudonym Kris Nelscott. As Nelscott, she has written six critically acclaimed mystery novels about African-American private eye Smokey Dalton. She’s won the Herodotus Award for Best Historical Mystery, and been short-listed for the Edgar and Shamus awards. Her latest Smokey Dalton short story, “Family Affair,” was reprinted in By Hook or By Crook and 27 More of the Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year, edited by Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg. In 2011, WMG Publishing will reissue all six Smokey novels in anticipation of her next installment in that series, The Day After, which will appear in 2012.)
I grew up in a very different time. At the age of 17, I was on the short list to become a page in the United States Senate. Several someones from a Wisconsin high school would be chosen, and my record of extracurricular activities--from debate to Model United Nations--as well as my high grades gave me the best credentials in the state. I was, as my social studies teacher told me, a shoo-in.
Until it came time for the interview. Four of my classmates and I had to travel to Madison, the state capital, to meet the senator and his staff. My four classmates went. I could not.
Not because of anything I had done, mind you. The senator’s staff simply took one look at our list and barred me from attending. Seems I was the only girl in the state to try to become a Senate page.
I didn’t protest. At 17, I already knew there was nothing I could do except hope things would get better. Later that year, I won a prestigious local scholarship that would pay my tuition for all four years of college. That scholarship, given every year to a boy and a girl from the local high school, was the best the school had to offer.
The boy did not have the restrictions built into his scholarship that I had. His scholarship had no restrictions at all. Mine had several, including this one: I would lose the scholarship if I got married while still in college. Silly me, I got married at 19 and forfeited the scholarship. Again, I did not protest the inequity. I knew there was no point--even though I planned to (and did) graduate within the usual four years. Marriage didn’t slow me down. Lack of financial resources hurt, however. I really could have used that money.
At one point, I held four jobs because I had lost that scholarship. Although if I mentioned to my father, a college professor, that I “lost” the scholarship, he would correct me. I had chosen to give it up. True enough. But had I had a penis, I would not have had to make that choice. The inequity was on me solely because of my gender.
One Saturday afternoon, as I manned the used bookstore that provided both one of my four jobs and the only major leak in my income, I stumbled upon a book by a mystery writer who was just becoming famous in the United States. Phyllis Dorothy James White knew all about the inequities that women suffered. Her books resonated with them.
Only I didn’t know that yet, because I had never read a P.D. James novel. The title of this one, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972), caught my eye. It spoke to me for obvious reasons and for reasons not so obvious: the fact that I couldn’t try out for the baseball team even though I was a good hitter, because I was a girl; the fact that I was told to stay out of politics, radio, and medicine, all because I was a girl; and the fact that no one thought anything about those limitations, because it was normal back then to restrict the expectations of girls. Sure, women all over the country, all over the world, were fighting for women’s rights at that point, but the fight was just beginning, and if you mentioned them, you must be one of those bra burners, those wimmen’s libbers, those feministas, all of which sounded really, really bad.
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. Every job I wanted was unsuitable. Everything I wanted to do was “for boys, honey,” as my mother would gently tell me. Stubborn, resistant girl that I was, I ignored it all. So I picked up James’ book and read it cover to cover.
A confession now: I haven’t re-read that novel in preparation for this essay. I had planned to. Well, actually, I had planned to look through my shelf and find something really obscure, something so forgotten that people would slap their foreheads and go, Oh, yeah! I read that! So I can’t tell you how old-fashioned this P.D. James book is or if it still holds up by modern standards. (It’s P.D. James, so I’m secure in the knowledge that the characters are stellar, the plot good, and the writing fine. I’m just not sure if the politics are, um, politically correct.)
As I thought about The Rap Sheet’s request that I write about a really obscure book, I kept coming back to the James. No one discusses this novel of hers. Cordelia Grey, the heroine, is a one-off. James never revisited her, to my great disappointment.
I loved the book. The unsuitable job, of course, was that of a private detective. Cordelia Grey wasn’t one of those faintly Gothic heroines who fell in love with the man who abused her. She took charge, even when it was hard, and she did things women weren’t supposed to do.
I adored that. So, years later, when I started reading the history of the modern detective novel, and I saw mentions of the largely unsung women who had started the modern female detective subgenre, I was happy. I read about Margaret Maron, who--let’s be honest now--hasn’t ever completely gotten her due outside of the field. I read about Sue Grafton, of course. And about Sara Paretsky, whose writing is exceedingly political and the stronger for it. But all of those writers, at least to me, hark back to Cordelia Grey and her unsuitable job.
Yet no one mentions her anymore. Maybe because she was a one-off. Or maybe because she didn’t influence anyone but me.
My first female detective novel is nearly done. It has taken me 30 years to work up the courage to write about my own gender--at least at novel length. (I have written a number of women-centric short stories for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine under my real name, Kristine Kathryn Rusch.) It took me a long time to figure out why I waited to write about a female detective.
It’s because back in the day, I swallowed a lot of anger. I was furious that I--the most qualified candidate--couldn’t meet the United States senator and be considered for that job. I was furious that I had to relinquish a scholarship because of a personal choice that had nothing to do with academics and everything to do with my femaleness. I was furious at being barred from sports, at the sexual harassment that was common at my various jobs, at the casual sexism of my professors and mentors.
And I felt (I still feel) that fury does not make good fiction. Fury makes great speeches. Good fiction has great characters in a great story. Everything else is gravy--especially political points. Political points from a place of fury.
Maybe that’s what I admired most about An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. The title hinted at that fury, but the fury was an undercurrent, barely there. Again, I haven’t re-read the book. I’m not sure if I would see the fury for what it is now, or if I just imagined it.
But it was there for me. Understated, important, and hidden beneath a good story.
For most of my life, I have aspired to write an emotional, political point beneath good storytelling. And I’ve aspired to it because of one book I might never have seen if I had kept that long-ago scholarship. If I hadn’t been in that bookstore, trying to earn my way through college.
I guess that’s a lesson. I’m here despite the limitations I faced. Or maybe because of them. I certainly wouldn’t have discovered Cordelia Grey without them.