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Life Imitating Art Imitating Life Imitating. . .

There’s no denying that the Samantha Kincaid novels are feminist, though—at least in the “women can do anything/women can do it all” sense. Kincaid works law enforcement 24/7, sacrificing love life and family relationships in the process; character Jessica Walters, a veteran prosecutor and lesbian mom-to-be, out trash-talks the cops as she tracks gangbangers while eight months pregnant. These characters fit into a sub-genre of women’s detective fiction with a long pedigree that includes Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Dorothy Sayers’ Harriet Vane, Sara Peretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone.


Sniffing Out Reed

From Judgment Calls

The only landmark Kendra could give me was Reed College.

She remembered seeing it while they were driving. The school was located just a few miles southeast of downtown, on Woodstock Boulevard. It was a fitting name for the location. The school was a bastion of leftist politics and had proudly carried the motto ATHEISM, COMMUNISM, AND FREE LOVE since the 1950s. Some student in the eighties had made a mint selling parody T-shirts saying NEW REED: THE MORAL MAJORITY, CAPITALISM, AND SAFE SEX.

Students arrived on campus looking like regular kids who just got out of high school, but by Thanksgiving they’d all stopped bathing and had torn holes in the L. L. Bean and J. Crew clothing their parents had shipped them off to Oregon with. When I was in high school, the slur “You smell like a Reedie” was used whenever someone got a little ripe in gym class.

Although the school was recognized nationally for its stringent academic requirements, Kendra, like most Oregonians, had described it to me as “that hippie school.”


Priscilla Walton and Manina Jones write in their book Detective Agency that women mystery writers use “an established popular formula in order to investigate not just a particular crime but the more general offenses in which the patriarchal power structure of contemporary society itself is potentially incriminated.” Writer Claire McNab puts it this way in the book: “Women who write crime fiction may yet be the ultimate subversives. The shock troops of feminists come and go, the backlash swells, but, ignoring the tumult, nice women sit down to typewriters and word processors and create deception.”

Burke also fits the bill. “From Perry Mason forward,” she says, “the depiction of women lawyers in the workplace is nonexistent—until L.A. Law, when they start to emerge. But they’re stereotypes—sour-faced and serious about work, or bimbos who aren’t serious about anything.”

By contrast, Burke insists that the world Samantha Kincaid inhabits is welcoming to women, at least once you scratch the surface. “Law enforcement has been traditionally male-dominated,” she says. “The veneer might seem sexist—men making offensive jokes, not being very politic. But the actual meat of the prosecutor’s office can be very friendly to women. When you talk to women, their experience is better than at law firms. Look at who become partners—it’s not women.”

Even though she’s given her character a fair dose of testosterone, Burke herself shies away from law enforcement’s most popular accessory. “Dad took me out once to teach me how to shoot,” she recalls. “What I had in mind was the FBI on TV—sterile and safe. Where he took me was this vacant land in Montana with a bunch of guys shooting guns. I’m a little bit afraid of guns. I see them and it makes me nervous.”

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