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  • Writer's pictureSusan Rowland, Author

The Fictional Detective as Artemis

The stories and images clustering around the goddess Artemis or Diana, avatar of the moon, re-appear in the imaginative world of the fictional detective.

Moon goddess and hunter only at home with wild nature, Artemis returns in women-authored mysteries as varied as those by Agatha Christie, Sara Paretsky and Lindsey Davis. She even appears in the more domestically oriented modern cozy, for example in her fierce singleness in the quest for justice. According to Ginette Paris, Christine Downing and James Hillman, Artemis constellates the feminine in her biological incarnation or “the soul meaning of gendered embodiment.” She is the feminine of radical autonomy, owing no definition to any context other than undomesticated nature.

Yet her myth also records that her autonomy, her pure devotion to the hunt, is threatened as is often true of the modern woman in detective roles. In Artemis’s myth, Actaeon spies on the goddess bathing naked. His violation is horrifically punished. Turned into a stag, he is torn apart by his own hounds. How many of the determinedly independent women sleuths find their work hindered by challenges to their ability to decide and act for themselves? How often does that thwarting of Artemis in them lead to more violence?

Artemis watches over young females and is also guardian of women giving birth; despite, or perhaps because of, not being a mother herself. For Artemis knows more than Western notions of birthing as a relatively safe medically sterilized procedure. Rather, Artemis is the knowledge that the mysteries of birth are also indissolubly linked to those of death. She retains the experience of the long centuries in which childbirth was a major cause of women’s mortality.

Giving birth is to be dangerously proximate to the underworld; the presence of Artemis steers the way to death or to life. “The arrows of Artemis… bring death to women,” says Downing, noting that the Eleusinian mysteries honoring Persephone are a freeing from the fear of death, not from death itself. So many female-authored detectives, and not only bold Private Investigators such as Tess Monaghan and Kinsey Milhone, struggle with their memories of causing or inflicting death.

Above all Artemis is wild. She refuses to make a permanent home with another person even when it means denying her own capacity for lasting love, as V.I. Warshawski does several times in her career. She is wild also in her primary allegiance to nature, as with Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon. And she is wild in her embodied psychic energy that is kinship with animals and wilderness. Here Hillman reminds us of Artemis as way to the animal within us as vitally (as in vitality), animated.5 We need Artemis’ animation because her primitive, skillful embodiment is a defense against forces of the blind, dead, power known as Titanism.

Preceding the Olympian cosmos, the Titans were giants, massive, undifferentiated, brutal. Defeating them meant that archetypal principles could begin to stir in the alive, conflicting, mutually implicated, endlessly procreative, and creative, goddesses and gods. Personality in all its unpredictable complexity succeeded unfeeling force. Today, suggests Hillman, Artemis energy of animal embodiment is an important defense against any Titanic power threatening to overwhelm the creative polytheism of the psyche.7 So the fictional detective who takes on, yet cannot wholly defeat, corporate greed and corruption is nevertheless a goddess incarnating vital psychic energies of human being. It is time to look more closely at this autonomous and home-resisting feminine energy.

Artemis Autonomous and Undomesticated

The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth.

Dorothy L. Sayers, Have His Carcass

Upon discovering the murdered body of a young man on a deserted beach in Have His Carcass by Dorothy L. Sayers, mystery writer Harriet Vane walks several miles to inform the police.8 She then calls the major newspapers, so that the subsequent press coverage can double as publicity for her new novel. As she later remarks to her suitor, Lord Peter Wimsey, given that she was herself recently acquitted of a murder, her reputation requires that if she is not to be a victim of press coverage she must herself pursue the case for her own ends. If somewhat forced into an Artemis role of hunting her own hunters, Harriet is, for several subsequent mysteries, more determinedly an Artemis in refusing to compromise her autonomy for the love of Lord Peter.

Refusal of marriage, or the modern equivalent of setting up home with a lover, links a number of female sleuths, including the Hestia-loving Hannah Swensen. Despite having her dream house built for her by sensible suitor, Norman, and despite chasing off his duplicitous ex-fiancé, Dr Bev, in Cinnamon Roll Murder (2012), Hannah resists the temptations of marriage.9 Not only does she continue to enjoy the attentions of two men (the other being Mike, the more exciting but less reliable cop), she values the autonomy of her own home.

In fact, I suspect there’s a connection between Artemis’s virginity as being one-unto-herself, autonomy for women, and the unassailable integrity that seems the bedrock of all fictional detectives, whether male and female authored. From Sherlock Holmes to Philip Marlowe to Miss Marple to V.I. Warshawski, the fictional sleuth may distain laws, yet always, without fail, pursues justice no matter where it leads.

The fictional detective also never gives up. From Stephanie Plum wrestling a fugitive in the dirt of the streets to the amusement of the local cops, to dogged V.I., who goes undercover in a woman’s prison knowing that torture is likely, in Hard Time (1999)---the sleuth possesses a dedication to the quest or hunt for truth way beyond domestic or institutional loyalties.10 Here too the heroism of the fictional detective is embodied; not unlike Artemis in her primary sense of the soul embodied in nature. Moreover, post Sherlock Holmes heroism of the sleuth is characterized by integrity and persistence more than his extraordinary mental powers.

Of course, Holmes does initiate a series of genius detectives that include female authored Hercules Poirot and the devastatingly incisive Miss Marple. Yet Holmes also pursues suspects in the London streets and, in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), risks being swallowed by a bog. After Holmes, and arguably more emphasized by women writers, detecting talent has been driven less by ego and more by loyalty to justice. Such dedication is enacted in a refusal to relinquish detecting when asked, begged, or even more or less forced to do so.

Fictional detectives by women, from Marcus Didius Falco to Laurie R. King’s San Francisco cop, Kate Martinelli, become Artemis in their embodiment of the quest for justice. It is Artemis who possesses Kate with her virginal autonomy in the hunt for killers. They are also Artemis pursuing what has violated virgin feminine nature in the victims of crime. Actaeon invades this pure feminine energy in whatever stops Artemis from being whole, whatever prevents the justice or truth that the Artemis sleuth comes to embody.

V.I. Warshawski with a middle name of Iphigenia appears particularly dedicated to Artemis in her need for independence and constant refusal to compromise. She will not abandon the quest for the truth, even for the sake of those who love her. Losing lover Conrad Rawlings because, even though he’s a cop, he cannot tolerate her risk taking, V.I. is constantly in conflict with her father’s best friend, Bobby Mallory. He is another cop who wishes she would act more like Hestia.

Kinsey Milhone, formerly a cop, relies so much on her own abilities to read her clients that it seems hard to imagine her not acting wholly upon her own embodied intuition. This particular quality of separateness from institutions in her work is her sense of herself as whole, intact in the virginal goddess sense, when pursuing a case. Often starting a hunt with something that cops do not readily do, such as search for a missing person, it is an Artemis-like devotion to autonomy as integrity in the quest that gets Kinsey through.

Indeed, an ambivalent relation to institutions is a fascinating aspect of the feminine sleuth as Artemis. Even though Private Investigators may take on a small job for a large company, as Kinsey sometimes does, most clients are single persons with intolerable problems. Although an exceptional detective like Kate Martinelli may manage to remain with the police, it is indigenous to Artemis detectives to resist corporate or institutional power. In fact being Artemis means hunting alone, even when ostensibly a police officer.

For example, in Laurie R. King’s Night Work (2000), Kate Martinelli decides to track some clues unofficially and unsanctioned by the supposedly guiding presence of the FBI. V.I. investigates when personally motivated, even though we are told most of her income comes from work for corporations. Typically Sharon McCone enjoys an uneasy relationship with her partner’s security multinational that culminates with her detecting its downfall. As James Hillman suggested about Artemis and Titanism (see above), Artemis the sleuth resists, and actively seeks to mitigate, the brute inhuman values of large institutions.

Ultimately, Artemis is the embodied feminine integrity that is marked or violated by injuries in the pursuit. Actaeon appears to the Artemis detective as that which threatens her fulfillment in the quest to know (the pursuit), as well as that which violates the bodily integrity of the victim. Virginal detectives find their own bodily desires and being shaped through their indefatigable determination. So, although Artemis’s autonomy is most visible in private investigators such as Sharon McCone, Kinsey Milhone and Tess Monaghan, she similarly inhabits Maisie Dobbs in 1930s London resisting marriage; or Linda Fairstein’s Alex Cooper, putting her detecting partnership above the temptation to succumb to love for Mike Chapman.

Remarkably, though, Artemis can survive in some marriages. Arguably Sharon McCone’s recent marriage to long-time partner Hy Ripinsky has not compromised her ability to respond to her nature as one primarily questing for justice and helping the vulnerable.

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