Color naming

How recent cozy mysteries by authors of color applaud female power

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Over the past five years, with the advent of a diverse cast of authors, cozy mysteries have begun to feature many stronger female characters. These women cannot be intimidated by the status quo that preserves patriarchy. Stopping them from becoming who they want to be and reaching their full potential is out of the question. This shift is important to note because there was a time when detective novels used women as plot devices to further the growth of a singular (mostly white) male detective.

Dial A For Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto is full of heart and brotherhood. Meddy Chan and her aunts always watch out for each other. Meddy’s mother sets him up on a date that doesn’t go well, and in the end Meddy accidentally kills his date in self-defense. That’s when his mother and aunts come to his rescue to help get rid of the body. In her essay “Muteness Envy” from The Feminist Difference, Barbara Johnson talks about how women are still silent about two things: their pleasure and their violation. Our culture idealizes this silence because it reinforces a system that encourages women to settle for the worst. Dial A for Aunties debunks once and for all the trope of the “helpless girl” that society wants women to be. Meddy and her team of strong women do not condone the overstepping of boundaries, nor do they submit to a society that robs women of their agency. The writing is hilarious and the plot is very entertaining, but for me what stands out the most about this book is how it does justice to the women’s stories. Instead of portraying the female characters as “beaten” and “needing a savior”, he compels his women to deliver themselves from darkness.

In Harini Nagendra’s novel The Bangalore Detectives Club, we meet a saree-clad amateur sleuth about to root out the evils in her world. About a century ago, when casteism in India was the order of the day, Kaveri moved to Bangalore to be the real wife of her doctor husband, Ramu. Kaveri’s new life is no walk in the park, but she still pulls through. From the start, Kaveri subverts all expectations of how a woman should be. She’s not afraid to dive into a murder mystery and help the cops track down the culprit. In a society where women are rarely allowed to venture out of the home alone and where caste hierarchies are rigid, Kaveri drives through town and speaks out against caste politics at every opportunity. She does not hesitate to reach out to those who have been marginalized by the prejudices of the upper caste. This book zooms in on how little agency women have in Kaveri’s India. Given the sociopolitical landscape in which she grew up, Kaveri is an anomaly. She is an exceptionally intelligent woman who is learning to drive, doesn’t mind wearing swimsuits, and has a mathematical mind. Kaveri is the spokesperson for women who are often held back by an outdated cultural script. It’s a shame she has to practice the math slyly and endure the judgment for visiting a sex worker’s house. However, as is the nature of brave and rebellious women, all the social obligations placed on her do little to deter her from becoming the detective she is meant to be.

cover of Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala

At Mia P. Manansala Arsenic and Adobo follows Lila Macapagal who is in a transitional phase of her life. She had a terrible breakup and now she needs to recover in the comfort of her home. While she’s still trying to get her life back on track, her ex-boyfriend makes an appearance. This sets off a series of events that will eventually lead to Lila discovering her own strength. When Lila is accused of being her ex’s murderer, she has no choice but to defend herself. Being part of the Filipino diaspora, life is not easy for Lila and her family. Manansala spoke about how Lila tries to stand up to attempts by white men to hurt her and her loved ones. When racial violence is so rampant, a woman of color’s fight against cops determined to label her guilty has a much broader sociopolitical subtext. Depictions of brave women of color fighting against the system, as we see in Lila’s case, need to enter the mainstream of culture in order to give us role models on which the rest of us can build our identities. Lila goes to great lengths to save Tita Rosie’s restaurant and also clear her own name in the process. While the theme of relatedness is strong here, Lila’s own desire to find her place also comes to the fore. She owes it not just to her family but to herself to seize the life they deserve and the life she was always meant to live.

The cozy mysteries of the recent past look at women in a refreshing new light. Heroines are not perfect super-beings or sacrificial martyrs. They stutter, they fall, but they rise to strike down anyone who undermines their strength. To explore more mysteries written from a feminist lens, please check out 15 of the Best Feminist Mysteries.