Gender crimes 

Poor women face the saddest plight in modern America.

He reads to pass the time, and it seems to work:
Time passes. Often he reads in bed
In the winter evenings at the edge of sleep …

—from “A Reader of Mysteries” by Howard Nemerov (1920-1991)

I like crime novels. It would be difficult to take a trip without one or two tucked into my carry-on bag. I don’t like to bring “literary” or scholarly books, where I tend to take notes in order to remember what I’ve read. On planes, after being frisked, I want to relax.

But often, besides being fun, detective stories can be instructive. Recently, reading The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke (one of my favorite writers) I came across this offhand observation, from the point of view of the detective heading into a poor district in a city in Louisiana: “He saw the peculiar mix of addiction and prostitution and normal blue collar life that had become characteristic of inner-city America.”

Yes, I thought, the saddest plight (in and outside of this novel) is that of poor girls and women, oppressed by men and poverty and bad health and poor education and bad luck swirling around them like blood-sucking bats. The Republicans in Congress don’t help, with every male-dominated, self-serving vote on abortion, equal pay, violence, and other women-related issues. These women are here in Tampa Bay, not just downtown, but in our neighborhood, and yours.

Of course, in a certain way, the doomed female victims in crime stories mirror the desolated women in many of our most famous novels where, although they’re not usually murdered, their endings aren’t good. Emma Bovary swallows cyanide, Anna Karenina throws herself under a train, Catherine, in Farewell to Arms, dies in childbirth; Cora, in The Last of the Mohicans, is stabbed to death by a Huron Indian; Hester’s lover dies and she has to wear her scarlet letter forever; Little Nell, in The Old Curiosity Shop, wastes away from fever despite thousands of readers (the book was published serially in newspapers) pleading with Dickens to save her; and Henry James’s spirited heroine in Daisy Miller is carried away by malaria. No end to this. In real life women outlive men by four or five years, generally speaking, but in novels they tend to die a lot earlier. Why is this?

Writers, male and female, recognize that women have built-in disadvantages in a patriarchal world, supported by nature, religion, culture and politics. In nature, it began millennia ago because women were smaller, they bear our babies, the foraging men full of aggressive energy. Reading about the atrocities of war, the victims of serial killers, the rapes even of their colleagues in the U. S. Army, Jeanne has offered the opinion that not money, but testosterone, is the root of all evil.

Despite its many mercies, religion hasn’t helped, either, by cementing the patriarchal hierarchy. Some religions are trying to modify this, obviously, but around the world, males are still boss — popes, mullahs, mayors, priests, pastors, rabbis — and this sets the tone.

Culture backs this up. Our magazines encourage women to dress “provocatively” (i.e., to please men), and in cultures where this isn’t true, women are still winnowed out by dress (burkas, “modest” religious uniforms), as compared to men, who wear whatever they want. Even the “free love” movements in Western countries have left women carrying the burdens and paying the obvious penalties.

Politics could help women out, and several countries (France, Germany, Sweden) have been implementing rules to help women live safer, freer, more economically satisfying and viable lives. But even in our “advanced” country, change is difficult, and Planned Parenthood and other women’s organizations have a rocky road to hoe.

The writers of detective stories know who’s guilty, and instinctively tap into our inner darkness. When the rest of us catch on, maybe something can get done.

I’m sick to death of counting sheep,
and there are hours yet to creep
and crimes to go before I sleep,
and crimes to go before I sleep.

—from “Reading in Bed at Three in the Morning” by Donald Finkel (1929-2008).

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