In the second novel of Barbara Wilson’s Seattle trilogy, Sisters of the Road, the narrator, amateur detective Pam Nilsen, comes by chance across a couple of prostitutes in the Sea-Tac strip, an isolated area with a string of cheap motels close to the Seattle-Tacoma airport. Nilsen has just dropped off her twin sister, who is on her way to Nicaragua with a boyfriend to pick coffee beans for the fledgling Sandinista government. The prostitutes ask her for a ride into town. Reluctant, amateur detective Nilsen nevertheless agrees. The detective is rarely self-questioning and her sense of humor almost non-existent.
Out of a gap to my right, behind me, between two of the dimly lit apartment buildings, stepped two figures, one supporting the other and both of them weaving drunkenly. They seemed to be making towards me, and I kept reversing as far to the left as I could. As I went past, the taller one, the one who was supporting the other, gestured to me to stop… The one had slumped over and the other was trying to drag her. Yes, they were women, they looked quite young, they looked like teenagers. (Sisters, 6)
This strange encounter worries the narrator, as she is afraid to be mugged, but helpfully agrees to bring the two into Seattle since that appears to be the right thing to do. One of the two young women asks the narrator to hurry, as the black teenager in the back is bleeding. Whether these are “girls” or “women” is a constant question throughout the first chapter, as the words are used interchangeably. “Girl” invokes helplessness and immaturity, while “woman” evokes a more mature person, one capable of clear judgment. Which category these youngsters are to be fit into is one of the underlying questions, as they are “only about sixteen or seventeen.”
I turned around with a jerk just as Trish raised Rosalie’s head for me to see. Blood was running from somewhere under her hat, running down her neck and inside her jacket. There was a thin trickle coming from her mouth too, and her eyes rolled under half-closed lids.
“Shit!” I said, then gripped the wheel firmly and stepped on the gas. (7)
Shortly thereafter, the black teenager dies while in emergency care at Seattle’s Harborview Hospital, and the white teenager disappears. The detective Pam Nilsen tries to track down the white teenager in order to save her. In addition to how to categorize whether the victims are women or girls, there is a need to place the sequence into a larger geographical framework. The scene is set in a cruising area for prostitution about twenty miles south of Seattle, in what the French would call a terrain vague or no-man’s-land. Pam Nilsen narrates:
All the gas stations were off the freeway on Pacific Highway South, also known as the Sea-Tac Strip – a long necklace with a jeweled cluster of Hyatts and Hiltons at the center and tawdry pearls and rhinestones of cheap motels, taverns, go-go dancer bars and Burger Kings strung out a mile in either direction. The street that was so often mentioned as the “last place seen.” The place a girl or young woman had been seen before she turned up as a heap of bones and teeth to be identified in some wooded, desolate spot nearby (5).
Pam Nilsen in the early novels is neither woman nor girl, but a kind of angel hovering above the action, outside of the tawdry relationships of desire. Instead of a two-way relationship in which the flâneur and the prostitute seek to exploit one another, Wilson proposes a one-way ethical relation, as her detective Pam Nilsen seeks to care for the teenage prostitute who has disappeared after the death of her friend at Harborview Hospital. Instead of sleeping with her, the narrator Pam Nilsen cares for her, going to considerable pains to track her down and take her to lunch in the Elliott Bay Book Company cafeteria, then looks for her in the street full of such kids after she disappears again, gets her off the street once more when she goes to Portland, Oregon, and finally is raped for her trouble in an encounter with Trish’s Ted Bundy-like half-brother at the novel’s conclusion. Even then, the narrator doesn’t feel ready to abandon the young woman, but invites the teenager to her house for enchiladas and an exchange of sympathies after the adventure is over, and is delighted in a mothering way to discover that the teenager has stopped smoking and changed her mind about “green vegetables” (198).
In the Denny Regrade, a seedy area near Seattle’s downtown (currently in the process of gentrification), detective Nilsen tries to find the vanished Trish, the white teenage prostitute she had driven to Harborview Hospital, by visiting her half-brother in a building called the Redmond. Most of the action scenes in the book take Nilsen into dimly lit territory. The denizens of these areas are vagrant men totally devoted to carnal passions.
The Redmond was a four-story brick apartment house built on one of the sloping streets between First and Western, in a no-man’s land of vacant lots and withered blackberry bushes. There was a clump of men drinking Thunderbird out in front when I walked up to the door, but they let me pass without comment and with only a couple of leers.
The glass door had a star-shaped shatter near the knob and the lock was broken. I pushed it open and found myself in a filthy, dim hall illuminated by a single bulb. I saw a row of metal mailboxes, their little doors bent open, their locks forced, and found his name on one of them: W. Hemmings in an elaborate scrawl. 4A.
There was no elevator, of course, so I walked up, expecting at each turn of the stairs to find a nodding junkie or a rapist. (73)
The Denny Regrade at the time that Wilson was writing (mid-1980s) was an area of Seattle distinguished for its stumble-bum hotels, alcoholic men sitting in tiny parks, and murders. Since then the area (close to the waterfront) has changed dramatically and is now – since Seattle’s economic rebound in the 1990s – a place where one must put down a thousand dollars a month for a studio apartment. Wilson’s descriptions are of a depressed Seattle that has almost vanished as real estate prices have tripled in the last two decades with the rise of the computer industry after the near collapse of Boeing in the early 1980s. The Seattle in which Wilson was writing is a noir haven for needy younger people from the northwest whose broken families forced them to flee desperate situations in Oregonian and Washingtonian hamlets. The tragedies that such individuals brought with them could be seen on every street corner as girls and boys (they could hardly be described as having the mature judgment of men and women) turned to prostitution. This unseemly underside to the northwest was reflected in a major Hollywood vehicle of the period My Own Private Idaho. In the film Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix play high-end male prostitutes working Seattle and Portland (Dir. Gus Van Sant, 1991). The children on whom these actors based their personas can in turn be seen in Streetwise, directed by Martin Bell, a documentary with real street kids, many of whom have since perished. The Wikipedia entry on the film Streetwise provides an overview.
Wilson’s detective is a Good Samaritan, and her major concern is violence done to young women in the city of Seattle. Unlike the Good Samaritan, Pam Nilsen sees not just individuals that need help, but an unbalanced social structure that requires correction, and which is constantly creating new victims. She narrates, “Ambulances were pulling up to Harborview’s emergency room like chauffered cars at the opera, one every few minutes — the only difference being that their occupants came out on stretchers, wrapped in blankets instead of furs, with portable I.V.’s decorating their arms instead of diamond bracelets” (8).
“Every few minutes” is an explosive estimate, but the streets of any major city are certainly unsafe at least for some. One of the most extensive serial killings in American history, the Green River killings, were committed in the Seattle area during the time in which Wilson’s second novel was written, and the victims were exclusively young women, most of whom were working as prostitutes. A culprit has since been found and convicted, as police have arrested Gary Ridgway, a professional truck painter, who was charged with four of the murders on April 15, 2002. A television documentary on Court TV entitled The Green River Murders: Gary Ridgway aired several times in late summer, 2002. Ridgway was given life in prison in exchange for helping the police to discover other bodies long since occluded in the swampy marshes of the Green River area. At the time Wilson was writing her novels, it was anybody’s guess who was doing all of these killings. According to Court TV’s documentary, Ridgway may be linked to as many as 150 murders of young women across America for over thirty years. Wilson discusses this bloodbath in her novel Sisters of the Road.
They called them the Green River Murders because the first remains had been discovered by the Green River. In the months and years since then, boy scouts, hikers and picnickers had found almost three dozen corpses or skulls and bones all over the area south of Seattle, and more women were missing. Some estimates ranged in the seventies … They were runaways and prostitutes, the papers said, and went on with touching articles about their foster parents or their single mothers, who all said they didn’t know where the girl had gone wrong. None of the dead were women that I or any of my friends knew. We didn’t know any prostitutes. (5)
Wilson’s detective is well-educated, and has a steady income, as do all of her friends. They work at a lesbian-feminist printing collective. Most of the victims, on the other hand, were young runaways without money to pay for schooling, or even housing. Were they women, or girls? The text constantly goes back and forth: no one knew “where the girl had gone wrong,” (5, my emphasis) in the articles that appeared in the dailies, Wilson writes. The women who work at the lesbian printing collective where Nilsen works all believe more or less that it is the police themselves who are killing these uneducated runaways from the working class.
June [an African-American woman who in the novel Murder in the Collective was said to have shot her abusive first husband to death] got worked up again and said that the so-called Green River Task Force [a special unit of the Seattle police working with the FBI] was probably getting paid by the killer to set the girls up [my emphasis]. Probably the killer was even on the fucking task force! Somebody’s idea of cleaning up the streets! (19).
This paranoia about the police is not born out in the Ridgway documentary. Male detectives worked for decades to bring the Green River killer to justice. Several were tearful in the Court TV documentary as they spoke of their helplessness in stopping the murders. In the feminist milieu of mid-eighties Seattle, a doubt concerning the entire male gender was pervasive, seeing pornography, rather than class, or education, as the key to gender oppression. The narrator’s mental map laid on top of the actual map of Seattle postulated a place in which there was no sanctuary for women anywhere within the city because all men, (rather than a few lunatics), were on the rampage due to pornography. Still, some women were more likely to become victims. A few of the victims are listed in the book: “Wendy Lee Coffield, Debra Lynn Bonner, Opal Charmaine Mills. They all had three names, with a number from fifteen to twenty-five after them” (5). These were lower class women without job skills or family support. More educated and better-connected women were far less likely to fall prey to Gary Ridgway’s killings.
In Wilson’s slightly earlier novel Murder in the Collective (1984) this same printing collective harbors the dark secret of one of its members having murdered one of only two men in the collective. The murder victim was a blackmailer spying on illegal Filipina immigrants, using the leftist press as a place to gather information. It is the undocumented women and those on the run who are his victims, too. Pam Nilsen isn’t rich, (her Volkswagon is falling apart), but she has a decent job and a decent education. We never find out much about the blackmailer Jeremy, except that he sold secrets and enjoyed pornography. In his apartment, (without a warrant), amateur detective Pam Nilsen and her lesbian lover Hadley find pornography and condemn him:
Hadley had discovered a stack of Hustlers and soft-core porn magazines under the bed. ‘That guy was sick,’ she said. ‘Poor June.’ She suddenly ripped one of them in half. ‘Christ, I’m starting to get the creeps in here.’
I couldn’t help shuddering too. June had deserved better than that. We all did. Reading porn had never been grounds for expulsion from a leftist collective, much less for murder, but if I’d known that Jeremy was a fan of Hustler I’d never have let him through Best’s doors. And for a moment I was only sorry Jeremy was dead because I couldn’t tell him so (112).
It turns out that a Filipina immigrant shoots and kills her husband in Murder in the Collective, this same Jeremy, and the whole collective knows. One member of the collective speaks for the others when she says to the Filipina killer,
“You’re going to be trusting a few too many people with your secret, but I swear you’re not going to jail. Not for Jeremy Plaice. You’ve got too many things to do to be spending your life in prison.”
And June [the previously mentioned African-American woman who is said to have killed her own husband] without letting go of Zee one instant, said, “Amen to that” (179).
The entire white male culture is corrupted by racism, and pornography, and thus the analysis presented is that Jeremy, who is murdered in the story, far from being a victim, is in fact the embodiment of everything wrong with men, who are in turn everything wrong with society. Plaice’s murder represents the cleansing of a manipulative male who blackmails the liberal world of a lesbian multicultural community into paying him bribes in exchange for printing fake passports for Filipino immigrants, and thus, his murder, far from being decried, is justified.
The narrator uses an episode in the TV police procedural Cagney and Lacey to illustrate the call for vigilante justice.
The young woman officer had sacrificed her police future to get revenge, not on the man who’d raped her, but on the man who’d raped so many others. She had taken the law into her own hands because the law didn’t protect women.
She and Cagney looked at each other and the scene froze, the series’ trademark ending.
And I almost burst into tears. It was as if I understood the story on some profound level and was afraid of its meaning. Was that the only way to stop violence against women? To kill men? To kill them back?
I didn’t want to believe that” (Sisters 160-161).
Wilson writes in her 1997 autobiography, Blue Windows, of having had to look deeply within her Christian Scientist upbringing and into its belief system to see how strongly the church suppressed an adequate understanding of evil.
For evil in Christian Science, considered as a theological problem, has a logical solution. If God is all-powerful and God is good, then evil cannot exist. Evil or error is a bad dream that can be forgotten, a carpet stain that can be removed. Yet even after error has been removed, and evil has been defined out of existence, there is, inexplicably, something that remains (133).
In the third book of the trilogy, The Dog Collar Murders, published in 1989, we see a hesitant movement towards “acknowledging my shadow side,” because this time it is an evangelical Christian female who kills several prominent pro-pornographic women in the feminist milieu in Seattle. In this novel there is discussion of feminist S/M practices in Seattle, and the novel offers more acceptance of pornography. In The Dog Collar Murders, there is a strong focus on intra-lesbian pornography, and whether it can be justified. The price of this openness toward pornography is a kind of political atomization, in which the sides are no longer clear, as her vocabulary now shifts, and the struggle within each separate individual to make an ethical as well as aesthetic life comes to the fore, but there are no universal guidelines established. One of her characters comes to the recognition that, “You can’t speak for anyone else, and you can’t let anyone else speak for you” (Dog Collar 203).
Wilson writes, “Our shadow sides are what we don’t see about ourselves. Our shadow is what we don’t consider acceptable. It’s not the part of the persona we want to show to the world. It’s the disowned part of our personality; it’s the part that’s not integrated. The shadow makes it possible for us to think and do evil and for that evil to seem separate from us” (Blue Windows 148-149).
Wilson’s Seattle trilogy can be seen as a historical account of the early demonization of men followed by increasing realization of the shadow, and the projection of evil on to the other replaced by introspection and acknowledgement of women’s darker side. It also acknowledges that women can be agents of desire as well as subjects. Wilson describes Pam Nilsen’s mental state:
“I was trying to imagine what Carole looked like naked. She did have a nice body, especially wearing sweat clothes: lithe and energetic with just the right amount of curve at her thighs and breasts. If I were to admit it, at the moment she looked a little like one of those women in Playboy… I shook the image out of my head; it was too easy” (68).
Desire in the early two novels is what others do in terms of objectifying others, it is what pornographers do, not Pam Nilsen. Nilsen does do it momentarily, but then displaces it on to others, demonizing them in the process. Slowly she comes to accept her own desires, and with this acceptance, creates a parody of her former self.
The third novel of the series, The Dog Collar Murders, turns on the polarizing issue of pornography in the feminist community, an issue which has been a central focus not only of international western feminism, but of Seattle feminism in particular, with authors such as those collected in the pro-pornography book, Caught Looking (published in 1988 in Seattle), taking the opposite perspective from the majoritarian anti-pornographic view:
I’m not so ready to judge as I once was. In the first place I hardly even knew what porn was or how people felt about it. It used to be a monolithic subject. There was porn and there was no porn, kind of like matter and anti-matter, and either you liked it or you didn’t. Either you thought it should be abolished or you thought it should be sold everywhere. There wasn’t room for contradiction, for your own contradictory feelings (Dog Collar Murders 202-203).
Detective Pam Nilsen articulates the problem.
“I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head and thinking of Loie. “We can only speak for ourselves, yet everyone would rather speak for everyone but themselves.”
Gracie laughed. “So all we can write now is our autobiographies? No more theory, no more criticism, no more polemics?”
“Not if theorizing is an excuse never to deal with your own sexuality” (188).
Wilson’s trilogy comes to an end on that note.
Some parts of the feminist community turned vigilante, especially in the earlier self-righteous period, retaining a sense of men as pure evil, and at times their vengeful acts fell outside the law. Anne Cranny-Francis writes of Murder in the Collective, that:
When Zee shoots Jeremy, she acts very like the hard-boiled detective who knows that justice will not be done by the judicial institutions and so takes it into her own hands. The position is problematic, whether in a feminist or non-feminist text (171-172).
Similarly, Liahna Babener writes in an essay devoted to Wilson’s Pam Nilsen trilogy, of “Pam’s blindness to Zee’s vengeful hatred, for example, and her facile racial liberalism which has prompted her to exonerate uncritically one of the suspects because she is African-American” (149). There is a change in emphasis in Wilson’s map from a dangerous patriarchal exterior realm made more dangerous by pornography to a dangerous interior map that Wilson implies is expressed in feminist pornography and in genre fiction and can even be found in the lesbian community. Nilsen has a hard time meshing ethics and aesthetics so that she never becomes a fully mature character, and none of the reigning vocabularies within feminism help her to reconcile her early Christianity with her new political commitments. We now see in rereading the trilogy that Pam Nilsen was motivated by desire to a certain extent all through the series and that there is even possibly an element of sexual self-interest in her helping the teenage prostitute Trish. The narrative description reveals Nilsen’s confused thoughts when she first comes upon the lithe teen:
“I watched her walk quickly back into line, tall and thin, with those spindly limbs and big breasts…” (Sisters 27). Nilsen then goes on to make fun of her own dowdy clothing, apparently uncomfortable with her own sexuality. “…I flushed a little as I glanced down at my own worn turtleneck sweater and overalls” (28). She then projects her own desire on to the men in the room when she writes, “Every male eye in the place was riveted on her as she paraded back with her second desert. But if she didn’t want them to look, why did she wear those tight jeans and high-heeled boots?” (28). Nilsen herself drinks in the teenager’s body but is seemingly unable to incorporate her “shadow” self’s thirst.
Gill Plain writes, “Wilson’s novels are unashamedly didactic in their desire to mobilize feminist debate, but they remain among the most successful in this category because they also contain the element of parody” (209). Attributing Wilson’s capacity for parody to “Barbara Wilson’s growing desire to deconstruct feminist absolutes” (209) we are left without a clear grid for reading the mystery.
Wilson’s novels take place with a very realistic background, a background explored in films such as Streetwise. Wilson’s trilogy is meant to be read as sociological analysis, but also to inspire social action. If social action is inspired by an inadequate theorization of evil, then it might in turn prove to do evil or at least not contribute to the common good. As a result, Wilson sought to move lesbian detective fiction out of the genre of melodrama into a more adequate sphere. In doing this, she had to come to terms both with the limits of the genre in which she was writing and with the limits of the feminist and postmodern theory of her times. Parody was used as a corrective, as a check on emotions both within the world of her novels and within the social-activist reader.
Wilson’s early novels ascribe violence to men, but not to women, or lesbians, following the Dworkin model. A feminist lawyer, for instance, says at one point in the novel Sisters of the Road, “You can talk all you want about a prostitutes’ union and women controlling it themselves. But it’s never going to be a safe profession. Because men aren’t safe” (191-192).
Lesbian violence is at the same level, or slightly higher, in domestic relationships as it is in heterosexual relationships. Wilson knew this, because the publishing house at which she published her novel, Seal Press, of which she was co-founder, had also published Kerry Lobel’s Naming the Violence: Speaking Out About Lesbian Battering. This book was published the year before Wilson’s second novel of the trilogy Sisters of the Road. It caused a firestorm among Seattle feminists who talked informally and in small feminist newspapers of the period about whether Lobel’s book should have been published. Violent Betrayal: Partner Abuse in Lesbian Relationships, by Claire Renzetti, is a further exploration of this topic. Renzetti points out that silence deprives battered lesbians of the social services they need.
The last novel of the Nilsen trilogy, The Dog Collar Murders, takes place during a feminist conference on S/M and many different voices rise and interact with one another. An S/M practitioner named Nicky says, “I bet three-quarters of you in this room have had rape fantasies, or fantasies of being tied up or forced against her will. Let’s be honest…” Wilson’s voices are often dead-on in terms of catching nuances as confused young people caught between their American upbringing and the European films and discourses to which they had been exposed, tried to present themselves as fashionable and European, hiding their (often) Christian moorings.
Wilson’s trilogy plays a role in feminist discourse much like that theorized by the multivocal carnival in relation to the univocal official church in Bakhtin’s thought. Bakhtin writes,
“As we have said, laughter in the Middle Ages remained outside all official spheres of ideology and outside all official strict forms of social relations… An intolerant, one-sided tone of seriousness is characteristic of official medieval culture… It was supposedly the only tone fit to express the true, the good, and all that was essential and meaningful” (73).
Wilson’s character Gracie parodies much feminist writing of the period when she says, “…much of feminist political writing is so boring to read. The thesis comes first and then the examples are modified to fit the thesis. Any fact that doesn’t fit is thrown out. Take, for example, one of the most famous catch phrases of the movement: ‘Pornography is the theory; rape is the practice.’ It sounds great, but what does it actually mean?” (Dog Collar Murders 187).
Wilson’s novels evince a “growing desire to deconstruct feminist absolutes” (Plain 209), and to do so she plays various voices of the feminist revolution against one another. Feminist “Gracie” speaking at the S/M conference says:
The point is not which ‘ism” is the root cause of oppression in our civilization, which sex or class or race is the most oppressed. The point is about the social construct of power. Those who have power will never willingly give it up… For power is never or rarely given up… (41).
Wilson challenges power as did Rabelais, but “Gracie” accepts that power is the only discourse that counts, a theme taken out of Michel Foucault, who devotes many pages to it in his work, and which has thirty-seven indexed sub-headings in History of Sexuality Volume I alone. For those who are completely powerless, such as the kids in the streets of Seattle, this formulation is insufficient. Gary Ridgway was not accountable to such inspection, or tried hard to avoid its gaze. By dint of their youth, the underaged should be protected, and not allowed to become the victims of the demented. These lines are blurry in Wilson’s trilogy. The carnival of discourse of the tumultuous era of the 1960s was matched by the carnival of discourse of the 1980s as the feminist turn from self-righteousness to self-parody threatened the feminist revolution’s call to action. Wilson’s trilogy formulates at first an anti-pornographic position, then ultimately formulates a more ambiguous and less self-righteous position, without ever completely relinquishing a sense of the dangers inherent in sexual desire. When violent desire is evoked inside long-term relationships between partners who are more or less equal, and when consent to symbolic violence is permitted by both of the partners, it is different than when one partner lacks the ability to consent. Having little or no money, as well as not having arrived at maturity, should constitute a lack of consent. Just because one has only one’s body to sell should not be a sufficient cause to sell it, nor should it be ethical or legal to purchase the sexual services of one who is helpless to say no. Such a situation sets up the conditions under which a Gary Ridgway can wreak havoc. When violence bypasses the symbolic level and reaches murderous rage, it is yet less likely that the less powerful partner has consented, or has the simple physical stamina to forestall the beating or death from blunt force trauma they may receive at the hands of a larger partner.
As Wilson’s trilogy winds down, it expands upon the simplistic characterizations of the mystery novel, and opens up into a carnival of debate, including an understated Christian thought that continues to inform many Americans’ understanding of ethical boundaries (a majority of Americans still define themselves as Christian), and forms an unnamed undercurrent of dissent within her novels. “Do unto others,” is an ethical dictate that many Americans still understand, and combined with the commandment against murder still helps many go further toward an understanding of why it’s wrong to kill a child in a sexual encounter than do texts arising from fashionable French thinkers. Dated as Wilson’s novels now are, these books wrestle with timeless questions about reasonable desire. They set up a rivalry as well between the fashionable flaneur of French postmodern literature and the more dour Good Samaritan of Biblical discourse. Discussing the two today can create a lively and carnivalesque classroom, but one in which we must remember that far too many young women and girls are still being thrown to the lions.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).
Babener, Liahna. “Uncloseting Ideology in the Novels of Barbara Wilson.” In Women Times Three: Writers, Detectives, Readers (Bowling Green: BGSU Press, 1995).
Bell, Martin (Director). Streetwise (Bear Creek Productions, 1984).
Caught Looking. Anti-Censorship Task Force (Seattle: Real Comet Press, 1988).