Hang around book-nerds types long enough and you’ll hear them mention the word “subversive.” Subversive themes, subversive protagonists, subversive…well, you get the picture. Now, before you decide all English professors and book-club members need to be on some government watch list, what they’re talking about are the aspects of a story that make you rethink your assumptions. Part of this rethinking is part of any mystery or detective story. But some literary detectives succeed because they subvert the assumptions other characters make about them. Like that lovely old snoop, Miss Jane Marple.
In Agatha Christie’s stories, Miss Jane appears to be the quintessential English Spinster. She gardens, she bakes, she wears nothing but tweed (I think) and she lives in a small, English Village. The kind of lady most people expect is sweet and rather naive. But beneath those fluffy curls and an abominable hat sits an observant and cynical brain. Not much gets past that shrewd, old dame. And when she comes up with some pithy, insightful observation, she subverts the other characters’ expectations. See what I mean?
But if Miss Jane set the standard of the unexpected detective, she’s had lots of followers since. One of my favorites is a handicapped ex-jockey named Sid Halley who other characters initially underestimate because of his small stature and background. (Stupid move, by the way) But, most of the fictional subversive detectives I’ve seen are female, which, in a chauvinistic way, makes sense. The heroes of the “hard-boiled” detective yarns, like Mike Hammer, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe dominated the genre for years and these guys are so tough and male that testosterone almost drips from their pages. The Hard-boiled stories are great and I have a well-worn collection of Dashiell Hammett prose to prove that I’m a fan, but those guys do set up certain assumptions. Which the ladies then turn upside down.
After hours with the cool-under-pressure Sam Spade, it’s a delight to see Janet Evanovich‘s klutz extraordinaire, Stephanie Plum, wrecking cars and falling over her own heels until she somehow catches the bad guy. And Sue Ann Jaffarian‘s Odelia Grey feels like my twin sister at times: she’s a middle-aged, overweight, paralegal (like me) trying to get through life without too much mess. Bless Odelia, corpses seem to find her like so many stray kittens. But probably the best example of the Subversive Detective today is the inimitable Mma Precious Ramotswe, founder, and head of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Mma Precious upends all expectations her culture has of middle-aged, single women by opening and operating a successful business, and then proving herself a skilled practitioner of her chosen profession.
And that’s the essential function of the subversive theme, to make people re-examine their assumptions. These entertaining stories have something profound to say: that intelligence, insight, and grit can be found in the most unlikely people and no one should be discounted because of their appearance. That’s a liberating idea. Funny that it’s still considered subversive.