The Art World of Feminists Offers a New Crime Setting
TWO NORTH AMERICAN veterans of fiction have written murder mysteries that feature strong female sleuths alongside strong female artists. The girl sleuths get glory, and the girl artists get murdered.
Before it’s over, though, the artist characters evoke a colorful pallet of feminist themes. The central theme—like the big helping of white on every painter’s palette—is a woman’s independence.
In Canadian author Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel (1991), controversial feminist artist Sally Love is killed at a gala art party in her honor in Saskatoon, a city in the plains of Canada (just north of Montana). Someone has put a highly allergic substance in her desert. Mishap or murder?
The second author is Kate Wilhelm, who’s Death of an Artist: A Mystery (2012) uses a less subtle method of murder. The artist, named Stef, breaks her neck after plummeting down the steps at her home studio in a small, coastal Oregon town. Accident of skullduggery?
Through such murder mysteries, Bowen and Wilhelm—both of whom specialize in female detective-type series—can explore all the relations that interest women readers. In this case, by having women artists as victims, the authors can do some probing of the tortured, creative, female soul.
In both novels, both artists were deeply troubled girls. Sally Love ran away from home in her early teens. Similarly, in Death of an Artist, Stef had a uneasy childhood, perhaps for medical reasons. Doctors said “manic-depressive” or “sociopathic.” Others dropped terms such as hyperactive, bipolar, attention deficit, narcissistic, and egotistical.
Now these two girls are back home as adult female artists, and both are quite successful before they are murdered.
Sally Love is famous for in-your-face artworks. Her current show is “erotobiography”: seven paintings of male genitalia. This includes a large, permanent fresco with a hundred such organs. Obviously, troubled Sally has slept around quite a lot. As a fictional character, she might be mirroring the real-life British artist, Stacy Emin, who is rich and famous for doing autobiographical work about her promiscuous sex life and attempted suicide.
Back in Oregon, Stef is also a success—except that she refuses to sell her sought-after paintings. Stef is recovering from a string of failed relationships. She has turned inward, living mostly in her studio with her artworks. She’s prone to screaming outbursts, however, on this topic: the attempts by her former art dealer, who is also her latest ex-husband, to sell her paintings for his gain and profit.
Meanwhile, the lives of Sally and Stef exist in a web of female kinship that makes up much of the storyline of the two novels. In the case of Sally Love, these female ties lend to a horrific turn in the plot: Sally’s mother is the one who murders Sally, it turns own.
In this novel, the female sleuth is Joanne Kilbourn, a middle-aged and married professor with a daughter. Kilbourn has known Sally Love and her “kind” mother since childhood—so the clincher is all the more shocking. Greek mythology has fathers killing sons, or in the case of Agamemnon, sacrificing a daughter to the gods for good weather. But mothers killing daughters puts a new feminist twist on the tragedian tradition.
Back in Oregon, it becomes obvious that Stef’s ex-husband is the culprit in her “accidental” fall. He kills her to void the legal contract that stops him from selling her paintings. The tension rises when the mother and daughter of Stef, having access to a gun in the house, are entertaining serious thoughts about shooting the ex.
Into this Oregon family drama comes retired New York cop, Tony. He is soul searching after being wrongly blamed for an accidental shooting at a crime scene. Working on the sly, Tony concludes that there is no evidence that would convict the ex in court. In fact, this is why the ladies want to shoot him. But Tony has an alternative. He works it out so that the vile art-dealer ex-husband drowns in a river, and with the evidence on him.
Both of these seasoned novelists—Bowen and Wilhelm—have had to decide what kind of art the female victims were producing. Describing art in writing is not easy, and there’s always the risk of falling into clichés.
Bowen walks a fine line on the cliché issue. As noted, the female artist in Murder at the Mendel is a type of artist “ripped from the headlines.” She does offensive sexual art and draws religious protesters. Even so, she clashes with another feminist artist over whether vagina art is old-hat (Sally voting for male genitalia as the new wave). Indeed, the Guerrilla Girls, a real-life feminist protest group formed in the 1980s, storm Sally’s art party because she is backsliding.
The work of Oregon artist Stef reflects her troubled childhood. It’s the pleasant imagery of a little girl seeking wonderland, and this makes it salable to collectors for their living rooms. One such work is called, Feathers and Ferns. Stef’s mother sees her grown daughter’s beach paintings as childhood dreams: “a beach enclosed by black basalt cliffs, higher and more forbidding in the painting than in real life, the way they must have appeared to a child.”
One beach painting shows a girl in several versions, each ghost-like: "The little girl was translucent, impressionistic, kneeling at one tide pool, squatting at another, sitting cross-legged, upright . . . all different, the same child, recalled by Stef the adult artist, then hidden away." Now her daughter is gone—murdered, in fact. That makes Stef the "ghost child" who wanted to spend forever among the happy treasures of the tide pools.