Inspector Kate Martinelli came into being in 1989, when the seed idea I had for a book, on a great woman artist, did not feel compatible with the slightly whimsical world of Mary Russell and her partner Sherlock Holmes. I wanted to tackle the idea of a female Rembrandt head on, and as such, the problems inherent in what crime fiction calls the “amateur sleuth” loomed large.
No: If I wanted to treat the question of women and art seriously, I had to hand the case over to a real professional, a cop, who had both the right and the obligation to investigate a death.
I shifted the seed from the Twenties, where I had been writing, to my own time in the late Eighties, and shifted, too, the location to a city considerably closer to my home than the Sussex Downs.
San Francisco, like all truly great cities, is a network of small villages twined together. Chinatown and North Beach rub shoulders, the Presidio’s cannons are shouting distance from the boats of Fishermen’s Wharf, and one can walk from the long-haired Haight Ashbury to the straight-laced financial district in less time than it takes to drive across Los Angeles.
But a neighborhood is defined by its differences, and the villages that make up San Francisco, to a greater or lesser extent, all close themselves off from each other.
In 1993, when A Grave Talent was published, it was easy to imagine a lesbian cop in the closet. In 2006, in the world of The Art of Detection, that same cop would have to be provided with deep neuroses to explain why she remained behind the closet door. Part of the pleasure of the Martinelli series, I think, lies in this arc of social and personal freedom: The rainbow family life depicted in The Art of Detection would have seemed a romanticized idyll in 1993; on 2006, gay men with adopted daughters and lesbians on the school board are just daily life in the City by the Bay.
Similarly, in 1993, there was no woman homicide detective in the SFPD. In 2006, there are two.
Such extreme changes, such a sudden gust of fresh, wholesome air, permeates The Art of Detection. Events in the historical portions of the novel take place in 1924, but those living in San Francisco seventy years later would have found many of the attitudes all too familiar. It is only those who are born into The City today who have the chance to look at Kate Martinelli’s earlier self and shake their heads in wonder.