Quantum Heroines: Candas Jane Dorsey on reinventing the noir novel
Posted 5th August 2021 by Candas Jane Dorsey
The nameless protagonist of The Adventures of Isabel is a quantum heroine: she sits in several places at once, which in science is called “superposition”, which seems apt! She sits well within the noir traditions of the nameless detective going up against the Forces of Evil—and she has a cat, which, come to think of it, puts her in a long tradition of detectives with cats, too!—but she also sits well outside of the canon because she is contentedly and unremarkedly pansexual, she is unabashedly friends with everyone from homeless and street people to wealthy and powerful folks, and she has a lot to say directly to the reader. I loved the way older books addressed the Dear Reader directly, but Nameless puts a postmodern twist on this breaking of the fourth wall.
When I was a little kid, my whole family used to read everything from biography to speculative fiction. Mysteries were just part of the variety. I used to get the Susannah of the Mounties series by Muriel Denison (the first one was published in 1936). I remember Susannah as a plucky little feminist who insisted on not being coddled and feminised. I haven’t revisited the books to see if they hold up to modern sensibilities, but I remember them as being empowering and encouraging to me when I was in primary-school. Of course I read all the kid-oriented mysteries of the time, but also the adult ones (I skipped the parts I didn’t understand and therefore didn’t know how much sex and weirdness was suggested until I re-read them as adults!). But it seems to me that we don’t understand mystery until we understand that all stories have mystery at their core. We are drawn through as the character solves a question or puzzle in their lives. We also need to understand that crimes against the vulnerable are the worst transgressions that humans (at least the best of humans) can imagine and are therefore crimes not against individuals but against humanity as a whole. That’s why such resources are poured into preventing them.
My unconventional nameless detective has read the detective canon, from Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers up to the modern day. She, as does her author, prefers books that foreground women and feminism and are queer- and trans-positive, even if their detectives or arcs of enquiry seem genre-normative.
My top two noir rulebreakers are by Nicola Griffith: Aud Torvingen (The Blue Place, Stay, and Always, soon to be re-issued by MCD/Picador, and there are new stories planned) is the epitome of modern: a kick-ass queer, confident, smart and resourceful noir detective–who of course loses what she loves most, because otherwise it isn’t noir. Aud is tall, competent, accomplished in martial arts, and comes from privilege–but she has still learned that it’s safer to take any corner wide, not hug the wall as most women do. One night she collides with another woman who is taking a corner wide–and the rest is mystery.
In a more recent Griffith book, So Lucky (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, US; Handheld Press, UK) the protagonist goes from married, healthy, and employed to abandoned, diagnosed with MS, and unwillingly unemployed in the space of a week. While learning (with great fury and intelligence) to cope with her new situation, she discovers she’s also a target for violence, and has to learn to battle danger on new terms. The book is a thriller, yes, but it also comments savagely on what it’s like to become disabled, especially in the USA, and how quickly disability, especially for a woman, rips away the fiction of equality and respect.
I’m interested in badassery without violence. In the media, the badass heroine is now a trope in and of itself, complete with a range of ‘violence porn’ that ends when the heroine emerges bloody but unbowed. I like a strong character as well as anyone, but even in fantasy movies, we see the fate of the Universe decided with a fistfight. In The Once and Future King, which I read when I was a kid, T.H. White took up the question of whether Might equals Right. I don’t think so. I want justice to be done because it is right, not because someone (man, woman, or other; police, ‘ethical criminal’, or vigilante) can impose it violently on others. When Lee Child designed his character Reacher, it was to have someone who could always win a fight—and we all would like to win all our fights, wouldn’t we? But we can’t solve the world’s issues with an iron fist. We have to be smart and principled and strong of character.
So my character is badass but not violent. She is a ‘downsized’ social worker, a pansexual woman, a friend to a huge range of people from homeless to wealthy/powerful, and she is fearless in pursuing the truth. She believes in social justice, and is smart and careful and canny instead of a martial arts expert. If a criminal gets violent with her, it hurts and she takes a long time to heal, just like the rest of us.
The Adventures of Isabel by Candas Jane Dorsey is out now with Pushkin Vertigo.