Sue Grafton’s recent death reminded me what a joy it was to watch this gracious, no-nonsense writer break into the male-dominated mystery genre back in 1982.
I’ve been thinking of Grafton while writing about Ellen Kirschman, a mystery writer whose work is just as fresh and relevant for her time.
As I remember the B.C. (Before Computers) era of the early ’80s, novels by unknown writers like Grafton were lucky to be published with a first printing of 5,000 copies — and luckier still to clear a sale of 3,000. Grafton’s publisher, Henry Holt and Company, took a risk on her first novel, “A” Is for Alibi, with an initial printing of 7,500 copies and was thrilled when it sold 6,000.
As the world now knows, one reason for its success was Grafton’s catchy, classy idea of making a lethal murder mystery sound like a children’s spelling book. Something about following the alphabet had a huge and immediate appeal, and why not? Few could resist solving “B” (Burglar) without looking forward to “C” (Corpse). Readers coming in late at “E” (Evidence) seemed to always want to go back and start with “A” Is for Alibi.
This was also the PFE (PreFeminist Era) when publishers were just beginning to realize that women not only bought most of the books in the United States; they actually read the damn things and, in the mystery genre especially, spread the word of an intriguing newcomer faster and more powerfully than any marketing or publicity campaign ever could (still true).
So it meant something that readers so quickly took to Grafton’s female private eye, Kinsey Milhone. An Everywoman alone in the universe, a loner who likes but is never dependent on men, Kinsey avoids violence, isn’t conventionally beautiful and doesn’t use wisecracks to get laid. Right through 25 novels sadly ending in “Y” Is for Yesterday, she has remained her own person — thoughtful, observant, a bit hermetic but curious about the world, and adventurous in her own way.
And unlike amateur sleuths, Kinsey has sought to be a professional PI from the start. She rents an office, charges for her time, works comfortably with male colleagues (especially the police) and keeps a formal distance between herself and clients. Only we know how deeply she may care for people along the way, sometimes at great risk to herself.
From Kinsey Milhone to Dot Meyerhoff
The matter of professionalism defines Sue Grafton’s legacy in a way that rang a bell when I came upon Ellen Kirschman’s protagonist, police psychologist Dot Meyerhoff (see most recent two posts below).
First, a quick observation: Every genre hits its trendy periods, but it’s been both fascinating and scary to watch the attraction of psychotherapists across all boundaries of fiction for the last 20 or 30 years. By now, mysteries can easily get junked up with superficially drawn psychologists who function only to fill a narrative hole. Their job is to offer cheap motivations, gossip in the form of red herrings and dark impulses that make voyeurs of us all.
Dot Meyerhoff is not that kind of character. In her 50s with decades of experience, she’s so much “the real thing” that readers can relax and enjoy her dry humor and unique commentary without feeling used. As far as I know (readers, please tell me if I’m wrong), Dot is the only professional female police psychologist in mystery fiction to function as a modern sleuth.
Kirschman, herself a police psychologist for more than 30 years, is famous in her field as author of nonfiction guides for First Responder families (I Love a Cop, I Love a Fire Fighter, etc.). In these, she writes with such a natural flair for entertainment and instruction that it’s fun to watch her pass the fictional baton to her shrewd yet often very funny alter ego, Dot Meyeroff.
The twist here is that the Kenilworth Police Department where Dot works, despite its location in the heart of Silicon Valley, appears to be stuck in a “cowboy culture” of the 1950s. Most everyone on the nearly all-white, all-male police force regards emotion as a sign of weakness, so no cop wants to be seen talking to the department’s “lady shrink” in any formal way.
Dot is patient enough with her macho clientele to do a lot of counseling “on the hoof,” as she says. So she just happens to bump into cops she’s a bit worried about, strikes up conversations in hallways or patrol cars, asks questions about family life and on-the-job pressures that won’t sound too probing, but are.
Over time, her understanding of cop life makes Dot more trustworthy to Kenilworth’s cops (and to us) than many a psych consultant who’s called in for a quickie consult.
From Suicide to Child Pornography
Kirschman’s themes are not easy. In Burying Ben (2013) Dot confronts the growing national tragedy of police suicide. In The Right Wrong Thing (2015) she faces blatant sexism and racism when a white police officer shoots an unarmed African American teen. (The fact that both cop and suspect are women throws a new angle on Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, movements that emerged after publication.)
And now in The Fifth Reflection, published in the midst of the nation’s crisis over sexual abuse and discrimination, Kirschman directs our focus to the larger, more complex phenomena of child pornography, pedophilia and sex trafficking.
Here we meet Manuel Ochoa, a promising young cop at Kenilworth PD who’s working to the point of exhaustion, even paranoia, on a child-porn operation with ICAC (the real-life national task force called Internet Crimes Against Children).
Manny has volunteered for the job because there’s more money and chance for advancement than the usual “leaf blower complaints and barking dogs” that beat cops usually investigate. He gets to choose his own team and set up round-the-clock systems in which detectives find hidden websites and track child pornography networks that lead to real perpetrators and real arrests. It’s tedious, depressing work, but as a new father, he comes to the job fired up and raring to go.
That would be a terrific start for an action novel about cops, but Dot Meyerhoff works in a real-life police station where evidence-gathering is always piecemeal and often frustrating. Her job is to spot risky behavioral patterns that many cops fall into and don’t know it.
“Manny started out in this job, as they all do, thinking he was part of an elite group of invulnerable people — smart, strong, and determined. This is not narcissism, it’s a necessary fiction. Without it, Manny or any other cop couldn’t do what society needs him to do. Or see what society doesn’t want to acknowledge.”
What’s the “necessary fiction” nobody talks about in law enforcement? I think Kirschman means that Americans fool ourselves thinking police are out there solving sophisticated modern-day crime when the truth is, they’re barely making a dent in the big stuff, especially child pornography.
At the same time, politically motivated brass like the Chief at Kenilworth PD tend to toss ambitious but ill-trained young cops like Manny into the fray.
Manny’s training so far: The Chief sent him to talk with “a retired guy from Child Protective Services.” His specialized workplace: A shoddy substation with cheap furniture and cast-off computers. The caliber of the detectives he works with: One cop on the team admits he “likes porn and thinks he can spend all his time hanging out in massage parlors.”
Dot sees Manny taking the brunt of all this.
“Investigating child pornography is one of the most stressful assignments in law enforcement. No one should be placed in a stressful specialty without first being screened. Manny has a small child of his own. That brings everything closer. Makes him vulnerable to over-identifying with the victims.”
That’s the pressure so many cops are under. Manny believes he’s tough and strong enough to fight whatever “emotional consequences” may sneak into the job. But his wife Lupe tells Dot that he can’t eat or sleep, won’t let any male near their baby daughter — even family — and is overprotective to the point of bullying.
Soon we see how invaluable “counseling on the hoof” can be. On a visit, Dot suggests that Manny move photos of Lupe and the baby away from the computer where he’s spending half his life viewing the worst kind of child pornography while trying to buddy-up to the perpetrators for the next sting operation.
Dot also begins “stress inoculation” for Manny by bringing Lupe in on strategy sessions at the station and at home. Keeping boundaries separate, she says, is a big step away from taking the bad stuff personally. But it’s only a first step.
When Naked Children Are Art, Not Crime
I wish Kirschman had shown us more of what a police psychologist actually does to help overwhelmed cops like Manny before his family and colleagues are afraid to come near him. Instead — and I admit it’s a fascinating and important subplot — the location changes abruptly as Dot and her fiance Frank attend an avant-garde art exhibit that features controversial photos of naked children.
In one image, Dot notes, a nude boy turns a “furious” expression at the camera, his “eyes blazing with the angry intensity of a powerful secret.” In another, a pre-pubescent girl with “an amorphous sexuality” lies face down, nude except for “wet leaves, some randomly stuck to her body.”
What’s the difference, people at the exhibit (and we readers) wonder silently, between these photos and child pornography?
Dot, both specialist in crime and art enthusiast, is at first open-minded. She finds the photos “gorgeous (and) evocative, drawing me in but repelling me at the same moment.” If they’re erotic, she thinks, they are also “bordering on pornographic.”
(This is the kind of disturbing internal dialogue that has been discussed for years regarding the work of Sally Mann, the acclaimed yet sometimes censured photographer and mother who, like the character of JJ in The Fifth Reflection, has photographed her own children in similar poses.)
Soon a fight is brewing. Frank, an amateur photographer who may have a crush on JJ, his strikingly attractive mentor and the exhibit’s most controversial artist, insists the photographs are “sensual, not sexual. These are works of art,” he says, “carefully composed.”
Even more unsettling, the children depicted get younger and younger. In one photo, an unclothed three-year-old girl is “sitting on a log in the middle of a stream, her knees pulled up to her chest, looking down at the water swirling in circles under her.”
Frank: What do you think?
Dot: She’s naked.
Frank: So is Venus rising out of that clam shell. And all those naked cherubs in the Italian masterpieces…Since I’ve been studying photography I see the naked form everywhere. Imogen Cunningham, Georgia O’Keefe, they all photographed naked women.
Dot: Women, not children.
Frank: How are these images any different from what you see every day on television? Victoria’s Secret’s ads, Sports Illustrated swimwear edition…
Dot: Those are adults. They can give informed consent to being photographed.
Dot is still pondering the difference between art and crime when Frank shows her the exhibit’s most praised photo, a picture of JJ’s daughter, Crissy, who’s two years old.
Dot: Her arms are at her sides and she’s dangling a toy dog by the leg — its head drags on the ground. She is naked, wearing only a white headband with a large floppy bow…Her eyes are huge and her skin flawless. I have no children of my own, but the image is so powerful I can literally feel the sensual appeal of Chrissy’s smooth skin, imagine how it would be to cover her plump pillowing body with kisses.
Wow. I put that quote in bold because I can’t imagine a straight white male protagonist in other mysteries, like Harry Bosch or Jack Reacher or Dave Robicheaux, saying such a thing about kissing a naked little girl’s “pillowing body.”
Of course the statement itself is fine — many hardboiled detectives are fathers who have hugged and kissed their toddlers that way all the time. It’s just that with the explosion of complaints about sexual abuse of minors in recent years, mystery authors tend to avoid any hint of impropriety on the part of the male hero. (Without a hint of irony, many of these same mystery authors bring us the most hideous stories of curvaceous young women being raped and tortured before the murder mystery even begins.)
Kirschman is fearless in this regard. Emotions that cops usually keep hidden in the shadows are fiercely explored in Dot Meyerhoff mysteries. While Dot will still emerge as a master of deduction — her eye misses nothing, her logic is impeccable — at the same time her heart, too, is wide open. She not only reads emotions of others with precise understanding; she’s vulnerable to human foibles as much as anybody.
What We Learn
And thanks to Dot, readers learn about pressures in police work that rarely make the news. Remember that white male cop in Texas named Eric Casebolt who knew a camera was on him during a chase, so he performed a martial arts “barrel roll” on the ground before slamming a 14-year-old African American girl in the dirt? And aiming his gun at unarmed teens around him? At a pool party?
That’s the kind of event that’s come into public discourse with the rise of cell-phone video technology and movements like Black Lives Matter and now #MeToo. It’s important that we see videos of police officers making good and bad decisions, but the question I think Kirschman wants us to ask is: How do we think about such images? Do these cops represent a few bad apples on the force, or does the whole system of police hiring and training need to be rehauled? Does a “cowboy culture” reign in police stations like Kenilworth, or is that familiar racist/sexist/macho swagger fading into a thing of the past? Should we be wary of cops today as “bullies or bigots with a badge,” or can we feel some empathy toward the pressure-cooker life that police officers step into every day?
That’s part of the legwork in Dot Meyerhoff mysteries. Along the way toward matching wits with our cop-shrink sleuth, readers gain some understanding of the political and emotional environment in police stations, the mental health training or lack of it we give to cops and the demands of peer pressure that may lead to episodes of false bravura.
The problem with The Fifth Reflection, however, comes when the inevitable mystery takes place: Too many subplots, suspects, detours, undeveloped clues and characters, unresolved infighting, unfinished theories and (unintended) red herrings fill the pages until the focus of the novel turns blurry and we lose the great Ah ha! moment.
I have no doubt that Ellen Kirschman will write her way into this series with increasing authority and finesse as a fiction writer. She’s already nailed Dot’s wonderfully acerbic narrative voice; improvement in narrative construction and characterization seems inevitable. And she knows how to lay an early foundation, as in The Fifth Reflection, for a kidnapping that may or may not be connected to Manny’s child-porn investigation and JJ’s art exhibit.
I mention the kidnapping specifically because this, too, like the constant reappearance of psychologists, has become a worrisome trend (next up, nannies). It’s as though mystery authors need to sell women’s fear as justification for women’s courage — that is, kidnapping as a really good plot device and character motivation combined.
But with so many authors on the bandwagon, kidnapping has become a cheap, cruel, phony and manipulative vehicle that, incredibly, makes children irrelevant. Who worries in the midst of HFW (Having Fun with Whodunits) about the damage being done to the little boy or girl who’s terrified and alone or sold off to sex trafficking or cut up into proof-of-life samples or buried or gone for so long that he or she is unrecognizable upon return so Mom and Dad go berserk until a shrink discovers a terrible secret that makes the sleuth, a gorgeous babe herself who forgets to close the blinds while bathing despite the serial killer across the street, look great.
Well, goodbye, Sue! Thank you for “Yesterday.” We know “Z” would never have stooped to such histrionics.
And come back soon, Dot! We miss you already.