Monday, July 18, 2011


Ah, stereotypes: where would we be without them as people and as writers? Our brains’ tendency to put people into categories and judge them accordingly probably allows us to get through our days. We look at individuals and draw conclusions. The child is innocent and helpless. The bank teller will give us our money. The mail carrier won’t force his or her way into our home. The librarian will frown and tell us to shhh. That little old lady is dithery, helpless and harmless. We don’t need to pay attention to her.

Stereotypes mean we don’t have to start from first principles with every person we deal with or pass on the street, helps us to manage expectation and the perception of danger. But these stereotypes are often wrong. We’ve seen in quite recent history how stereotypes and stereotypical views have held people back: remember the days not too long ago when people believed that no one would ever take a woman television anchor seriously. Female voices were ‘wrong’ and lacked authority.

Two groups of people really benefit from our unquestioned belief in stereotypes: crooks and mystery writers. Oh yes. Fraudsters will take advantage of the fact that people believe attractive, well-spoken and congenial folks could never do any harm. And mystery writers, me including, are thrilled if readers can be misdirected by the seemingly harmless appearance of certain characters. Little old ladies can absolutely be trusted to do something wicked or dangerous in my books and stories. Serves you right if you think they are all the same.

As a librarian by training I am often stunned by the pervasive nature of librarian stereotypes (especially considering the party animals who were my classmates). Do I use that? You betcha. So imagine how thrilled I was to read an intriguing piece about art theft this week. The notion of thieves breaking into museums or galleries, dodging complex security pitfalls and successfully stealing and selling valuable art works is simply not the case most times according to experts. Want to know who is likely behind the disappearance of art works? Staff. That’s right.

Staff means librarians and curators. I was tickled by the complicit librarians, but hang on. Curators? Aren’t they timid and colourless individuals, wandering corridors vaguely in rumpled beige, with bow ties and misplaced reading glasses? Thinning hair too. What? Uh oh! I’ve been betrayed by stereotypes.

Still, this article made my week. I have been pondering the international art thief librarian motif. I could have fun with that. The curatorial possibilities are also amusing.

Of course, I need people to continue to rely on the mental ‘short cut’ of stereotypes for me to pull the wool over their eyes.

I think it will happen. In the meantime, shhh!

Mary Jane Maffini rides herd on three (soon to be three and a half) mystery series and a couple of dozen short stories. Her thirteenth mystery novel, The Busy Woman’s Guide to Murder, which hit the bookshelves this spring, is brimming with names, no two the same.

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