Detecting Canada Excerpt: A Feminist Examination of Joanne Kilbourn

Book Cover Detecting Canada

Detecting Canada is the first serious book-length look at crime writing in Canada, containing essays on many of Canada's most popular crime writers. The following is an excerpt from Pamela Bedore's piece on novelist Gail Bowen and her Joanne Kilbourn novels. Of the essay, the book's editors, Jeannette Sloniowski and Marilyn Rose, say:

"Pamela Bedore [argues] that the author uses the series as a jumping-off point for a feminist examination/reconstruction of the amateur sleuth. She sees Bowen’s fiction as complex and nuanced and the author as creating a serious discussion of feminist issues through manipulations of the conventions of crime fiction."

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From Chapter 7 by Pamela Bedore

A Colder Kind of Death

The Joanne Kilbourn series naturally breaks into three “movements” of three or four novels, each based on Jo’s professional situation as well as her romantic relationships, and each movement contains one novel that addresses feminism head-on, although questions of gender politics inflect all the novels. Although Jo’s strength as a successful professional woman often appears to be undercut by the way her relationships to men define her, she shows herself to be resourceful and reflective in considering her gendered interactions. The first four novels show Jo, a speech writer who is first writing her dissertation and then employed as a professor, struggling to understand the ways in which she continues to be defined—personally and professionally—by her late husband, Ian Kilbourn, whose murder she finally resolves in the fourth novel, A Colder Kind of Death.

The next four novels focus on Jo as an academic detective whose relationship with Alex Kequahtooway, an Ojibwa police officer, shapes the ways she addresses tensions around racial and gender identity. In these novels, Jo’s work as a professor of political science with strong interdisciplinary ties to the journalism department is central to her connections to the murders she investigates. The most recent six novels of this ongoing series centre largely on Jo’s relationship with—and eventual marriage to—paraplegic lawyer Zack Shreve. Here, the action moves away from the university campus and into the courtroom, with Jo on summer break, on sabbatical, and eventually in retirement when murders occur. Each novel’s central crime raises a major socio-political issue, with easily identifiable social problems such as censorship, child prostitution, domestic violence, abortion, prisoners’ rights, and First Nations rights placed alongside more insidious issues such as political, journalistic, and legal ethics.

Book Cover Burying Ariel

The power of Bowen’s series to engage in gender politics comes in part from Jo’s seeming ordinariness, and thus the reader’s easy identification with her character. In her first-person narration, Jo spends a great deal of time describing her daily life—cooking meals, walking the dogs, driving to work, doing errands, and spending time with her kids. She characterizes her life as like that of many middle-class Canadian women: she is a successful professional who balances career and family effectively yet continually struggles with questions of gender parity. She loves her work, which leaves her a schedule that can be flexible in the face of child care (or murder investigation) needs. Jo’s situation is in fact far above the average middleclass identity she—like many professionals closer to upper than middle class—espouses; her life is more comfortable than most, financially and professionally. Each murder investigation Jo undertakes in some way forces her to re-examine herself and her choices, and the intersection of her personal and political work encourages the reader of these detective narratives to investigate Jo’s personal politics along with the murders at hand. The three novels I examine in showing Bowen’s sophisticated analysis of gender politics—Murder at the Mendel, Burying Ariel, and The Brutal Heart—are those that most directly address questions of feminism.

Excerpted from Detecting Canada: Essays on Canadian Crime Fiction, Television and Film by Jeannette Sloniowski and Marilyn Rose, Editors. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2014. Appears with permission of the publisher. 

May 26, 2014
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