HOW A STRONG WOMAN STEALS THE SHOW
by ELIZABETH ZELVIN
As a card-carrying feminist (if there were such a thing), I have a tendency to jump up waving my hand, like Hermione the first year at Hogwarts, whenever someone starts talking about mysteries with strong female characters.
It’s not entirely my aging memory that makes me forget over and over that the protagonist of my series is a guy: recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, with his smart mouth, his New York attitude, and his ill-concealed heart of gold.
A reviewer of the new book, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, said some nifty things about it, including that it “will keep readers guessing till the end.” However, he wrote me privately that he didn’t understand why Barbara, more than Bruce, seemed to be driving the investigation.
It was a fair question, because I’ve given Barbara not just an important part in the investigation, but a very active role, along with Bruce, in the climactic showdown with the murderer. I did the same in Death Will Get You Sober. Yep, I broke one of the cardinal rules of traditional mysteries (the protagonist is the one who gets the bad guy), and I had some good reasons for doing so.
The first reason is historical. I did not intend to write a book without a strong female protagonist. I was passionately committed to writing a book about recovery from alcoholism. I might have chosen a woman alcoholic, except that I cared deeply about the secondary theme of friendship getting a second chance, and I had a two-guy story to tell.
Two boys, best friends, grow up together, start drinking together, become alcoholics together. Then one gets sober; the other keeps drinking, wrecking his own life and all his relationships. Fifteen years later, the second guy gets sober. Can this friendship be saved?
So I tried to do both. I wrote a story with two protagonists, a male alcoholic (Bruce) and a female codependent (Barbara), with the long-sober friend (Jimmy, Barbara’s boyfriend) as a sidekick. I gave them alternating chapters, both in first person, each with a distinctive voice.
About 160 queries and many revisions later, the first book appeared. But in the meantime, an astute editor had suggested that I rewrite the manuscript. He thought Bruce made a terrific protagonist but that Barbara, while a good character, would do better as a sidekick.
It was a good suggestion. Barbara was a little too preachy and discursive in the first person but came out just right with a few close third person point of view chapters punctuating Bruce’s narrative. But I still wanted to make her a strong character, so I didn’t remove her from the action.
The second reason comes from my commitment to the character-driven novel. The way Barbara leaps on the sleuthing bandwagon and harrasses Bruce and Jimmy until they can’t do anything but say, “Yes, dear,” and follow her lead is consistent with Barbara’s character as a world-class codependent. A counselor by profession, she burns to help.
She can’t stop rescuing, controlling, and minding other people’s business. As a result, she makes an excellent amateur sleuth. At one point, in a so-far unpublished novella, the guys accuse her of having no boundaries. When she protests, “I have boundaries,” one of them says, “Yeah, the Mongolian border.”
Part of Barbara’s shtik is her investment in both Bruce’s sobriety and the friendship between Bruce and Jimmy. She thinks sleuthing will engage Bruce emotionally—an important aspect of coming back to life after years of hard drinking—and thus help keep him sober. And she is utterly involved in the drama of the guys’ renewed relationship. When they talk on the phone, she listens on the extension (a device I’m reluctantly letting go of as more and more people give up their landlines). She wants to know what they’re thinking and feeling. She says out loud the things they’ll never say, including that they love each other. She’s moved by that. She cares.
As a result, Barbara comes to life every bit as fully as Bruce does. To some readers, her insatiable nosiness is an irritant—a cake crumb under the skin of Kipling’s rhinoceros. But a lot of women readers like Barbara—“She’s a hoot”—or get annoyed with her in a way that tells me she comes across as real. “Has anyone ever told you they’d like to smack Barbara?” one reader asked me. Best of all, to me, is when they say, “I love Barbara—she’s such a strong female character.”
Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York psychotherapist, a three-time Agatha Award nominee, and author of the mystery series featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, starting with Death Will Get You Sober. The third book, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, is just out, and “Death Will Tank Your Fish” was a 2011 Derringer Award nominee for Best Short Story. Liz has also just released a CD of original songs, Outrageous Older Woman. Her author website is www.elizabethzelvin.com, and her music website, www.lizzelvin.com. Liz blogs on Poe’s Deadly Daughters and SleuthSayers.