Readers of mysteries respond to interesting, pro-active characters and Northern California mystery buffs had the opportunity to meet two very different and compelling characters earlier this summer at a Sisters in Crime meeting.
The NoCal chapter of SinC meeting, held at the Albany library in the Bay Area, featured writers Elizabeth Pincus representing Nell Fury and Linda Grant representing Catherine Sayler.
Pincus, who now lives in Los Angeles, created the lesbian character Fury as her private investigator. Pincus, herself a former p.i., is senior editor for films at L.A. Weekly magazine. She has published two Fury books: ``The Two-Bit Tango'' and ``The Solitary Twist.'' Both are available in trade paperback from spinsters ink of Minneapolis. Her third book, ``The Hangdog Hustle,'' is in the works.
Pincus said lesbian readers are delighted to discover her novels.
``They feel validated,'' she said.
Berkeley resident Grant, national president of Sisters in Crime, is the creator of the heterosexual Sayler, also a San Francisco p.i. Other books featuring Sayler include: ``Random Access Murder,'' ``Love Nor Money,'' ``Blind Trust'' (the latter two available in paperback from Ivy) and the most recent, ``A Woman's Place,'' in hardback (Scribner's, 1994, $20).
Also at the meeting was Joan Hammerman Robbins, a San Francisco psychotherapist, who shared her insights on changes in the mystery genre by comparing the two protagonists, Fury and Sayler.
``What else is going on in this kind of fiction behind the obvious sleuthing?'' asked Robbins.
``The sleuth represents a woman who can take care of herself,'' she said, answering her own question. ``She's not passive. She's right there engaged in action.''
And in order to take care of herself, she has to be in good physical shape. Grant's Sayler holds a black belt in aikido. Fury walks the streets of San Francisco or rides her bike when her ailing car is in the shop. Other female sleuths jog regularly. A British character rows to stay in shape.
Robbins described the growing number of female investigators as ``focused, alert, hard-working, determined and resourceful, curious and compassionate - attributes important for all women.''
These attributes also have led, she suggested, to a womanly style of sleuthing that relies on intuition as well as clues. These women - Fury and Sayler - also use humor as a counterpoint to their vulnerability.
``It lightens the mood,'' Robbins said.
These women also show us how to be assertive by taking risks and being courageous, she added.
``Both value their connections to other people and work with others at being connected,'' said Robbins.
Fury, for instance, shares custody of her daughter, Pinky, with a former lover. Fury also has close female (Phoebe Grahame) and male (Tad Greenblatt) friends. She's on the lookout for the perfect love.
Sayler has a niece. She also has a father, plus a domestic partner, Peter, and a business partner, Jesse. She even gets along, grudgingly, with her ex-husband. ``A Woman's Place'' ends with this sentence: ``It was nice to be loved by four good men.''
Robbins cited ``A Woman's Place'' in particular as an example of a growing number of female sleuths who are finding their voices in stories that deal with the sexual and physical mistreatment of women.
``The whole focus of `A Woman's Place' is sexual harassment...from a simple prank to murder in a corporate situation and its effects on women and men,'' said Robbins. While society still claims that sexual harassment is harmless - ``No harm's been done'' is the line repeated over and over again - Sayler shows by example how to maneuver with dignity through the sexual harassment minefield.
``It took two years to write,'' said Grant, ``and I began it six months before the Clarence Thomas hearings when no one was talking about sexual harassment.''
Pincus and Grant also described their attitudes toward guns.
``Nell is anti-gun,'' said her creator, Pincus. ``She doesn't own or carry one. It's a political point made by Nell; her alternative is to be a scrappy streetfighter. I didn't want her to glorify guns.''
``For me, it wasn't a political decision but a practical one to give (Sayler) a skill rather than a weapon,'' said Grant.
Watch for Nell Fury and Catherine Sayler.