“I don’t know a lot of rude words”: Herbst, Paretsky, and Grafton’s Struggle to Master the Tough Guy Voice


  • Laura Ng University of North Georgia




20th century American literature, womens studies, gender studies


AbstractThe proletarian literature of the 1930s and traditional 1930s era hard-boiled detective fiction are literary siblings. Both genres came of age in popular publications. Both genres deal with establishing order. Both genres use the “tough guy” voice. This voice was a no-nonsense powerful tool used to highlight the gritty realism of blue collar life. This style of writing quickly became a central component for both genres. Embedded in the term “tough guy voice” is masculine identity. This is the voice for the active underdog male hero. Writing in genres for women is an on-going challenge given the expectation of gender implied in the narrative voice. For the contemporary feminist hard-boiled detective and the 1930’s women proletarian protagonist to be taken seriously in their respective tough guy genres, they must show the same verbal acumen as the male characters who built the genres.At the core of each genre, the expectation that tough guys remain tough guys is an issue that stretches beyond the time frame of 1930s and 1940s to contemporary iterations of the genres. The gendered transition from male protagonist to female protagonist requires authors like Josephine Herbst, Sara Paretsky, and Sue Grafton to engage in a series of dynamic manipulations verbal and textual manipulations. Both sets of authors created protagonists that faced the threat of being dismissed due to their gender, traditional family roles, and conflicts with authority. The authors dealt with these threats using very similar strategies, to varying levels of success. Paretsky and Grafton’s heroines win verbal battles by showing mastery of the voice and the other voices in the texts.  At the core of this struggle is the protagonists’ ability to maintain the power of professing.  



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