[Editor’s note: It has been awhile since I hosted a guest on my blog. I cannot help but think that my dear friend Joyce Gibb who died on Christmas Eve arranged this connection. A Jungian by training herself, she would have applauded with glee to know that days after her death I found myself chatting with today’s guest, Susan Rowland, writer and Jungian scholar. When she told me about the reissue of her book THE SLEUTH AND THE GODDESS: HESTIA, ARTEMIS, ATHENA AND APHRODITE IN WOMEN’S DETECTIVE FICTION I asked whether she would consider writing a piece for my blog. To my great delight, she agreed. Please join me in welcoming Susan.]
Genre novels, such as mysteries, are stunningly successful while being historically undervalued. Like much that is undervalued, detecting fiction became a repository of marginalized ideas in general and what is termed the ‘feminine’ in particular. It holds the shadow or the underside to dominant values. So, for example, crime fiction genres stem from the revolt of Romanticism against mechanical ‘reason.’ They provided humane reasoning against the blunt instrument that is the law.
In fact, as Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey proclaims, fictional detectives are modern knight errants. Their good deeds rescue justice from the cruelties of the powerful. Although knightly heroism has been a largely masculine tradition, many types of detective fiction serve a narrative form dedicated to reconciling feminine and masculine energies: the grail quest. Modern mysteries continue the work of medieval romances. Structured around a lost cup or grail, ostensibly that used by Christ, they quest for what was a feminine symbol in ancient fertility rites.
In such ritual and the successor romances, the masculine spear and feminine cup are re-united to heal a sick king who is also the wasteland, the dying world. Today, this is exactly what fictional detectives do. They blend finding material clues (the scientific, legal masculine) with delving into marginalized areas of domesticity and intimacy (feminine feeling). By doing so, they can ask the right questions to achieve the grail. The cup is not an object but rather an objective, the truth about a murder that will heal the wounds of that particular society. In fact, these novels are themselves grail forms that forge connectivity between people and places. As such, detective Owen Archer is superb, not in spite of, but because, he is presented so vividly as a flawed human being who grows, breathes and loves.
We can go further with marginalized feminine patterns. In my newly reissued book, The Sleuth and the Goddess (Routledge 2019), I explore how four patterns identified with the goddesses, Hestia, Artemis, Athena and Aphrodite, recur throughout women’s detective fiction. They can also be found in male authors since femininity and masculinity are creative aspects possible to both women and men. Here Hestia is the complexity of home and interiority; Artemis that of hunting, the wild, and mysteries of death and birth. Aphrodite fosters the erotic body as a knowing body while Athena is arch-strategist, one who compromises to protect the community, and finds a way to accommodate the furies of revenge.
Furthermore these four feminine strategies are not consciously deployed. Most mystery writers do not deliberately scatter devices associated with pagan gods. Rather, these patterns emerge within the imagination and help to evolve the repetitive elements of genres. One way of revealing the living energy within Candace Robb’s sleuth, Owen Archer, is to look for the goddesses. Fascinatingly, we find multiple goddesses, not a divinity reigning alone.
This discovery really bowled me over when writing the book. Feminine patterns in fictional detectives are just like feminine patterns (or archetypal stories) in people. Like real people, characters have many archetypal potentials that creatively interact as their plots/lives demand. Inspired authors seed these complexities as the elementals of life.
Turning to Owen Archer, we see a significant Hestian drive. As hearth guardian and its primal fire, Hestia’s sense of home operates within a family, a community and even in the planet. Owen is Hestian in his ‘obsession’ (says a friend) to protect his family, but his care extends to all in his charge. Part of his Hestian feminine is embodied in Lucie, a wife whose dreams he trusts as prophetic. That trust and those dreams are Hestian insight or inner-sight, more than compensating for his physical loss of an eye. Yet Owen does not find peace by dwelling always by his hearth. Like most fictional detectives Owen is also driven by Artemis, avatar of the feminine as wild nature.
Restless if too long indoors, Owen feels affinity for solitude and wilderness that is Artemis. He is a dedicated hunter after truth and skillful tracker of miscreants. One of the great achievements of Robb’s writing is the way small details imply deeper impulses. In The King’s Bishop, Owen encounters a “frantic wingbeat” in an Abbey nave that sounds “otherworldly”. In finding the spiritual in nature and in insisting on leaving the door open so that the trapped bird might be free, Archer is truly Artemis, the feminine who wielded bow and arrow. In the same novel, his friendship with Magda is explored, a midwife and wise woman whose care for the gynecological enacts another aspect of the complexity of Artemis.
In addition, scarred by a past vicious attack, Owen’s story arc is akin to disabled Hephaestus, husband to dazzling Aphrodite, to becoming the goddess’s lover, Ares or Mars. The novels reveal that Owen’s marriage is blessed by his disfigured body becoming the erotic desired and desiring body. For Aphrodite is the feminine pattern of the beauty that provokes erotic love, not conventional beauty. With Lucie, Owen comes to understand love and eros as a sometimes overwhelming force in human affairs.
Ostensibly, Aphrodite would appear less implicated in detective fiction than the fierce pursuit of Artemis. Actually, Aphrodite rises from the waters of mysteries in two key ways. Firstly, eros points to knowing in the body in addition to mental cognition. Secondly, the slaughtered body is a source of the sacred. Aphrodite is outraged at murder, for it curtails the bodily pleasures that are her domain.
With Aphrodite, Owen Archer exists in a sensuous world of scent, taste, touch and physical contact, pleasurable and painful. His body is alive in the writing in ways integral to his intuition and detection. Of course, such Aphrodite ways are not limited to him. When a friend under suspicion cannot bear the smell of the river Thames because it reeks of the drowned body of his love, the body is a place that creates meaning. Robb’s wonderfully sensate portrayal of medieval life is one of the joys of her work. In these mysteries, history is not a mere account of the past but rather a grail by which its essence is summoned.
Ultimately, of course, Owen Archer is Athena, who protects her city and was crucial to the founding of legal justice. Aeschylus’s play The Eumenides records how Athena persuades the Furies to live inside the city as honored guests. Instead of endless bloodletting, they will be a source of fertility: the grail achieved. Any detective who respects the law to safeguard the community is Athenian. Yet this goddess is also wily to enable her to thrive in the patriarchal pantheon. Owen is even more Athena in his strategies for survival in an imperfect world.
Lastly, Athena was goddess of ceramics and weaving. Here she is the artfulness of the detecting genre itself, which contains and processes our desires for violence. Athena as mysteries compensates for, as well as exposes, real injustices.
My book, The Sleuth and the Goddess offers more on these feminine patterns in mysteries by women. Owen Archer is an Athena hero weaving pragmatic strategy for his community. Yet he is also distinguished by his Hestian integrity, Artemisian purity and Aphrodisian body-knowing. I delight in Owen Archer’s archetypal quests and eagerly await more.
Susan Rowland is author of two books on mystery fiction by women, From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell (2000) and The Sleuth and the Goddess (rpr. 2019). Her first novel, Murder by Alchemy is with Artellus Literary Agency. Website: susanrowland-books.com; email@example.com
Thank you, Susan!
Readers, please feel free to ask questions of Susan in the comments. I will pass them on!