Tech, race, and gender: more thoughts on Fundraising the Dead

Fundraising the Dead was primarily assigned (I assume) for setting and plot: a Philadelphia cultural institution with the serial numbers filed off, and a series of thefts from the aforementioned institution. Plotwise, an inside job made easier by a backlog of materials and multiple cataloging systems rings true. Some details of Nell’s workplace remind me of my time at the APS. Scary elevator, check. Digitization project, check.

I did find it a tad annoying any time a character got all handwavy about Alfred Findley’s computer. Partially because it might’ve been a gendered, only-socially-inept-boys-can-be-techies thing. Partially because if you’re going to write an “as you know, Bob” conversation you might as well go for the full infodump. And based on chatting after the Archon webinar, the Pennsylvania Antiquarian Society would’ve been using Archivists’ Toolkit, which got a pretty firm toehold in the Delaware Valley beginning with one seminar and undoubtedly reinforced by the incestuous nature of the cultural scene.

More annoying (or, just perhaps, cleverly done) is Connolly’s approach to race. Nell Pratt is white, as is (presumably) every character aside from Latoya Anderson who is “in grant-writing terms, a ‘person of color.'” Nell’s white privilege emerges in a stated desire to be color-blind and she does not seem to consider diversity within the organization potentially beneficial for its own sake. While “diversity hires” may be good from a financial perspective she finds them offensive and, apparently, liable to backfire: but “luckily” Latoya proved to be well-qualified, so in this case everything worked out. Sort of: Nell still has “nagging doubts” about her.

So Latoya, with her Ivy League pedigree, labors under the stigma of being a “diversity hire.” After successfully negotiating for time to pursue her own research, there is an implication of laziness. She does her job, but doesn’t go beyond her job description, so she’s not doing everything she can. If Nell’s opinion is representative of the Society as a whole, small wonder to learn that “Latoya had remained aloof from most people at the Society.” Nice job Othering your colleague, hero.

To return to the gender issue, I feel a little torn in my assessment of the book. On the one hand, the narrator and series sleuth is a woman. Her primary ally, Marty Terwilliger, is a woman. Many of her co-workers and secondary allies are women. Off the top of my head, I’d say the majority of supporting characters are female, they collectively get more time on stage than the males, and I think the book passes the Bechdel Test. (I haven’t combed through to check, but I believe it passes on the technicality of brief office interactions; the fact that the murder victim and suspected thief are both male means substantive, plot-related conversations are unlikely to pass.)

On the other hand, there is a preponderance of women defined by their sexual choices, whether as foolish dupes or scorned avengers. The fact that Nell, Marty, and Libby Farnsworth are philosophical about their love lives, and motivated by more than sexual desire or history, does not remove the bad taste left by Doris Manning, semi-competent cold-blooded killer and caricature of hysterical obsession.

On the third hand, there are moments that can be read as simply wince-inducing, or a critique of gender. The large tips left by “crazy ladies” wins them less attention at a restaurant than the “innate authority” of a male FBI agent. Nell wonders “can a man be a gold-digger?” when discussing a man planning to marry into a fortune. Males trump females in various hierarchies (a male FBI agent and a female detective, a male president and female vice-president), but it is unofficial networks (largely comprised of women) that are instrumental in identifying the thief. The negative attributes Nell identifies in Latoya largely replicate those she identifies in Charles Worthington (pre-investigation), perhaps implying that Nell’s warmer (and sexual) relationship with Charles is influenced by gender.

I suppose it’s possible that Connolly is laying this out with comparative subtlety, using a first person point of view to present a narrator whose privileges, lack of privilege, and cultural assumptions are on display and can be evaluated by the reader. But sometimes an installment in a themed cozy series is just an installment in a themed cozy series, so I doubt a critique of race and gender issues is a high authorial priority.