MURDER IN THE COLLECTIVE (1984) by Barbara Wilson

Wilson_Murder-in-the-Collective_TWPfThis was the first of a trio of mysteries set in Seattle featuring amateur sleuth Pam Nilsen, who with her sister Penny runs a printing business (inherited from their parents) as a cooperative. A radical lesbian typesetter collective expresses an interest in a merger to reduce costs. That night, after a difficult initial meeting between the two groups, the typesetter’s is trashed and the next day one of Pam’s staff is shot and killed in his office. Was he the one who trashed the office and was killed in revenge?

I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“Just how do you think Best Printing is going to survive if you’re spending all your time playing Nancy Drew?”

This isn’t a particularly complex detective story, a searing social indictment or an in-depth character study either – but I enjoyed it a lot all the same. Right from the title it made me smile, bringing back memories of the 1970s and early 80s when being a left-wing radical wasn’t a dirty word and being idealistic still seemed like a good life choice. Predictably though, this also means that it contains a lot of special pleading and bumper sticker agitprop, leading to its main weakness as it tries to pack its narrative with a somewhat unseemly number of hot topics, including: racism, homophobia, the white woman’s burden, police brutality, alcoholism, the corrupt regime of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, FBI surveillance. And yeah, it also would have been nice if at least one male hadn’t turned out to be weak, despicable or an ass****e. It’s not that this isn’t necessarily true some of time (or even a lot of time) but here it can feel decidedly forced. For instance, after establishing that a major (female) suspect can be a rather nasty drunk, this is immediately followed up with a couple Wilson_Collectiveof sentences to establish that this is actually the fault of her alcoholic father. Then there is a scene that is played as creepy but which just seems strident now, in which Pam turns against a young male member of staff (the recently deceased one) not because he was (deep breath) a drug dealer, two-timing his girlfriend (another staff member), a blackmailer, a reputed FBI informer, and a forger of  immigration documents (and as such, since they were done at the printing premises,  could have got the other members of the collective potentially incarcerated for years). No, what makes Pam and her new friend Hadley shudder in horror is finding copies of Hustler magazines hidden under his bed!

“I never would have thought …” she began.
“… that I’d turn out gay?”

So, only women get respect, sympathy and a second chance in this story and all men are in the first instance always treated with suspiscion if not outright hostility. And yet, I actually rather enjoyed this one, mostly because Pam and her friends are depicted with great sincerity and as people I’d certainly like to meet (well, assuming they would let me through the door for a cup of java). The radical printing business might seem an unlikely springboard for a detective series, but this also proves to be a particularly emotional investigation for Pam, who in the course of the story ‘comes out’ (to her great surprise) and Wilson_collective_vintagethus became one of the first recurring lesbian protagonists in mystery fiction. She is also very gauche and naive and lacking in confidence, forever berating herself as she re-examines her political, social and sexual credentials, always comparing herself with her twin sister, who is much more confident. So yes, while there are a fair amount of ‘right on’ statements on left-wing politics, sexual identity etc, this is an engaging mystery in the sense that we want to find out what happens next (though admittedly there is no sense of jeopardy or much momentum as it reaches its low-key conclusion) but because the characters are people who for the most part want to fight for a number of causes to improve society and make the world a better and fairer place – amen to that.

Barbara Ellen Wilson, who since 2000 has written as Barbara Sjoholm, wrote two further books featuring Nilsen before starting another brief series featuring Cassandra Reilly. The Wilson mysteries are no longer in print (on paper), but they were published as ebooks by Open Road Media in 2013. You can read about the author at her website,

I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘borrow’ category (thanks Mum):


***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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54 Responses to MURDER IN THE COLLECTIVE (1984) by Barbara Wilson

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    I know exactly what you mean, Sergio, abut adding in so much social agenda that it impacts the plot and characters. There was (still is, truth be told) a lot that needs to be fixed in society; but packing too much of it into a story means there’s less room for the story. Still, it sounds like an interesting context.

  2. realthog says:

    Sounds jolly! I’m actually all for heavy-handed agitprop, so that aspect’s not a deterrent for me. I’ll keep an eye out for books in this series.

  3. Yvette says:

    Don’t think this is for me, Sergio, but I still enjoyed reading your review. Though I read all sorts of things I’m not fond of mysteries that push some sort of social agenda (no matter if I agree with it or not). For me, it interferes with the story. Especially if it’s blatant. I think it’s my age. 🙂

    • I’d be lying if I didnlt say that to a degree it depends on the agenda, but I know what you mean. This is a very soft-boiled read though Yvette, I think you might enjoy it – honest!

  4. Bev Hankins says:

    If it didn’t sound so “busy” with all the social agenda items, I’d put this one higher on the find it list. As it is–interesting as it sounds–I doubt I’ll ever get to it. Thanks for another great review!

  5. tracybham says:

    This sounds worth a try. Likeable characters go far towards making a book easy to read and enjoy. Early 70’s were a bad time for me, but late 70’s and early 80’s are when my husband and I got together so I am fond of that point in time.

  6. Colin says:

    Hmm, sounds like it overcooks the feminism somewhat, to the point of edging a little too close to misandry for my taste. I think I’ll pass.

    • Heart very much in the right place though Colin, really 🙂

      • Colin says:

        Perhaps, I’ll have to take your word for it. To be honest, I find the kind of thing a big turn off.

        • Fair enough my friend, fair enough.

          • Colin says:

            The thing is I think genre stories are a fine vehicle for raising a variety of social issues, but when the brush strokes are too broad (as I sense is the case in this novel) I find it counterproductive and the egalitarian in me rebels somewhat. Maybe that’s just me, but there you go.

          • No I get that and would probably agree – it is questioned here somewhatr and our protagonist is certainly on a voyage of discovery, which makes it all much more palatable than it might be. On the other hand, yeah, one single OK male in the whole would have been nice, but that is not the story being told here.

  7. Matt Paust says:

    Your review started bringing back flashes from those days for me, as well, Sergio, and I might have read this, too, had it been on the bookshelf of someone I was visiting and with time to kill. Unless it was sitting next to, say, well…almost anything else. 😉

  8. Richard says:

    Cole’s word misandry came to my mind too. Gender bias like this drives me up the wall, this book would have hit same before I was 50 pages in. It’s fine for characters to have a cause, or several [I was a non-activist tree hugger in that day], but when a cause turns into active suspicion, dislike, or even hate, that’s too much. When all the white males are jerks, bad guys or worse, that’s just agenda-pounding. But then I’m a white male, so I’m apparently a horse’s butt and my opinion is of no consequence, according to this book’s author. Pfui. Do you get the impression I’m unlikely to read this one?

    • Colin knows his onions of course but always important, to me, to consider why a lot of people do feel this way about us blokes. Men have definitely had it way too easy for far too long – what’s interesting to me is how this works (or not) in a murder mystery and here we have a partial success. I don’t know what the other 2 books in the series are like …

  9. I don’t know what I was doing in the early 1980s, but I completely missed this book. Good review!

  10. Todd Mason says:

    In the States, of course, it was very much Not Cool to be remotely leftist by the late ’70s nearly everywhere in the country, which had the result in part of ginning up reflexive leftism for some. Trust me, I was already pushing socialism in that era, though of course it was also in New Hampshire. And then in Hawaii, no more popular there.

    • Todd Mason says:

      And HUSTLER was, fwiw, going out of its way to be disagreeable…Paul Krassner helped a little during his time on staff (I think hie might’ve been the one to bring in Theodore Sturgeon as a columnist(, but, well….I suspect feminist printers might just find buying the magazine at least as offensive as any of the other things you listed there.

    • 1980s right wing chic – one thinks of Patrick Bateman and shudders 🙂

      • Todd Mason says:

        Leftists were not in fashion, and frequently mocked, well before Bret Easton Ellis’s literary masturbation came to the fore. Even the likes of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, the closest thing to a leftist beachhead in US commercial television in the 1970s, was too busy celebrating Jimmy Carter as the less Nixon-pardoning alternative to Gerald Ford to do much about how utterly conservative his administration was. (He’s been a much more impressive ex-President than he ever was as president.)

  11. dfordoom says:

    I’ll definitely be giving this one a miss! Political agendas always ruin detective fiction. In fact they ruin any fiction!

  12. Kathy D. says:

    I read this years ago and I liked it. At that time, women writers were burgeoning, as a result of the women’s movement. V.I. Warshawski, Kinsey Millhone, Sharon McCone and a lot of other women detectives came onto the crime fiction scene.. I loved them all. The books were written by women, about women detectives — and had primarily, women readers. This was after decades of crime fiction primarily by men and about male detectives. And women characters weren’t always treated so well.
    So this was an important development. As a teenager, what were my choices: Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe (love these) and Perry Mason. I had a few Christie/Poirot, Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey books, but barely anything with women detectives. And barely any written by U.S. women writers about women sleuths. So, all these books with featuring women were in great demand by women mystery fans.
    Agit prop doesn’t bother me at all in mysteries. I like it. Also, as an activist in my younger days, who is still on the streets in spirit, I’m all for it in mysteries, but it has to fit into a story.
    And “Hustler,” grrr, I’d be suspicious of anyone who hid copies of that. That magazine is among the worst as far as portraying violence against women. No women the character suspected the magazine’s reader. I would, too.

    • Thanks for that Kathy – as a child of the late 70s and early 80s I really enjoy books that straddle that era and as a confirmed Socialist of the old school I think that is why I liked this one, for all its gaucheries. I will take your word about Hustler if that is OK, not sure I can really stomach actually reading the actual publication, though it is fascinating to see it at the extreme end of the freedom of expression debate and the culture wars of the era.

      • Todd Mason says:

        Well, HUSTLER wasn’t That so much. as fortunate in its enemies. Flynt resented the Jerry Falwells as much as anyone, which didn’t actually make him any sort of hero. Though shooting him wouldn’t be my preferred mode of criticism…thus setting those who agree apart from the promulagators of Secret Police and Lone Gunmen around the world…Flynt, like his old rival Hefner, was on the correct side of some issues not necessarily for the same reasons one might hope he might be.

  13. Kathy D. says:

    Meant to add that I loved Barbara Wilson’s book, “The Case of the Orphaned Bassoonists,” starring Cassandra Reilly. Set in contemporary Venice, it is interesting. There is some good history in the book about Napoleon and about convents which took in abandoned girl babies and trained them to be musicians. That was fascinating.

  14. Quite the product of its times, Sergio. The 70s and 80s, as I recall, saw the rise of feminism and the liberal woman, most certainly in my part of the world. And this was evident across cultural mediums, particularly films. In that sense, I found this story and its characters most unusual, not to mention the title of the book, which would have drawn me towards it.

    • Thanks Prashant – The trapping may be historical, but the message is still relevant, even though some amazing things have happened in the interim, like President Obama making it to the top of the OUT ally list.

  15. Kathy D. says:

    I’m in the same political boat as you are in and I love books about social issues. Sara Paretsky is a favorite author, as she writes of a terrific character, interesting plots and political and social issues.
    On Larry Flynt, I don’t think shooting him was the way to deal with him either, although a bit of schadenfreude is permissible, I think.
    I’m for the power of words or protests. When the movie about Flynt came out, Gloria Steinem wrote a very biting criticism of him and Hustler in a New York Times op-ed that was brilliant. That stopped people from seeing the movie. That’s the way to handle these matters — and it worked.
    I think that people have to take responsibility for their work and if it’s offensive, then other people should answer that; in this case, women, Gloria Steinem did and her writing was persuasive.

    • I haven’t read the Steinem piece but thought the film was pretty good in broaching a difficult subject (admittedly, I haven’t seen it since it was out at the cinemas in the UK) and have no idea how accurate it was. Why didn’t she want people to see it – was it inaccurate? It it were just about somebody finding it offensive then there should be no debate because it is so personal and you just say ‘don’t read / watch’ rather than go the censorship route. The important bit always comes in looking in detail at the deeper ramifications. I remember not always agreeing with Susan Dworkin on the detail of the money-sex-explotation nexus, but I alwatys agreed with her in principle. It is so often about cash and not about real freedom of expression, which is just so disheartening in what is supposed to be a sophisticated Western world. But then just look at the GOP debates …

  16. You are running through my life, Sergio, with I Start Counting from my young days, and now this which I read when it came out. I would read any Women’s Press book and the idea of feminist crime fiction was extremely appealing. Yes it probably was extreme, but you have to consider what some of the male-written fiction was like in those days – it was a very reasonable reaction to the likes of, say, Fletch, with those appalling attitudes to women. I liked Wilson’s books very much and read most of them I think, though haven’t been keeping up.
    Wilson herself was a fascinating person – when I lived in Seattle some years later she was quite the local character in leftie circles (which is a big deal in Seattle) and I used to see her at things and hear stories about her…

    Something tells me I would get on really well with your Mum, from your glancing comments we share a lot of tastes!

  17. Kathy D. says:

    Your mother does sound like a fascinating woman with good politics and a host of good books to match. Was she an activist in her younger days? Later days?
    Steinem criticized Hustler because it glorified violence against women on its pages; more women being brutalized than in any other publication. She was not against sexuality being portrayed; it was the depiction of every type of violent act against women, very sadistic and sick, in my view. And she was also concerned that those sadistic portrayals sparked acts like them.
    But here is the thing: No one censored the movie. No movie theaters took it down. No producer or director said no. The government didn’t refuse to allow it nor seize it like works of the Hollywood Ten or other left writers and directors. No one did anything to censor it.
    A prominent woman wrote an op-ed explaining what Hustler depicted. And people/viewers made their own decisions. It was all decided in public with words It would be nice if
    wars could be prevented like this.
    No theaters were trashed, no books burned, no people arrested, no movies seized.
    Someone used her brain and wrote down cogent arguments and persuaded others.
    Isn’t that the way things are supposed to work? Intelligent arguments, people
    thinking and deciding for themselves.
    Now, I might have been for handling it differently as a child of the 60s. Yes, a few sit-ins or two or grabbing the movie reels and putting them on the Brooklyn Bridge or in a display case in the Museum of Modern Art as a relic — but that’s me and I think creatively. Or putting them in a time capsule or sending them to the Bermuda Triangle.

    • My ma is lovely but she doesn’t read this blog (she prefers historical fiction to crime) – Doris Lessing remains her great hero. I’ll let her know we are all talking about her! But hey, we’re all card carrying commies of the old school in my family. However, to be clear, Steinem wasn’t criticising the movie, just its subject? What’s the problem with the movie exactly? My recollection is that it is not, in and of itself, pro porn or anti women.

  18. Kathy D. says:

    My parents also, although in their older years, they were more readers than rabble-rousers, although my father sometimes went to demonstrations. I did luck out in the mystery department, as he introduced me at 15 to Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe and Perry Mason.
    What Steinem was objecting to was Larry Flynt’s and Hustler’s depictions of horrific degradation of and sadistic violence against women, and was arguing that Flynt should not be seen as a hero or anti-hero.
    There was not censorship; there was debate.
    People voted with their wallets and chose not to see the movie.

    • Have you seen the film Kathy? It’s not really about Hustler and hardly I think is was rather more nuanced and intelligent look at the American culture wars, precisely because it refused to take a black or white, hardline approach. I should however watch it again because it really has been a while, though director Milos Forman’s Milos Forman’s liberal credentials are pretty impeccable.

  19. Kathy D. says:

    I suggest you read Gloria Steinem’s op-ed in the New York Times. It is posted online. I just reread it.
    What I’m saying is that there was not censorship as we know it: No movies cut up or theaters trashed, no movie house doors locked, no one kept out.
    Steinem used the power of debate, of words — and she was persuasive.
    I wish that wars could be prevented that way or police violence over here or attacks on women’s health care, i.e., rationality.

    • The link to the Stenem piece is currently here. Thanks Kathy. Not wishing to flog a dead horse, or to have the last word, so apologies if this comes across like that, but the Flynt film seems in some ways an odd one to pick for criticism in thsi congtext. I would argue, for myself, that the average Ashley Judd revenge thriller was much more pernicious and damaging. What I appreciate about the Flynt film is its willingness to take a difficult subject and look for nuance, complexity and contradictory behaviour within it and expand beyond a reductive reading about porn. The likes of Double Jeopardy, like the Grisham adaptation A Time To Kill, in its simple-minded Hollywood amorality is to my mind much more insidious and fascistic in its philosophy, suggesting as they do that laws against murder and protecting freee speech are fine, unless you don’t agree with them, in which case get your guns out and start blasting. I agree with Steinem in principle, but I wish she had picked a different kind fo film, one that was going to be gobbled up my the masses instead of a nieche product that was trying to do somethign brave and different. Seeing that kind of project undermined is never good for any sort fo debate. And that is exactly what has happened to mainstream American cinema in the intervening years and it is a terrible shame.

  20. Kathy D. says:

    Really? This has happened to U.S. cinema? I will agree that there are limitations to U.S. movies, which can make European films more interesting and profound in comparison. But there are still some good ones over here. A friend just saw Spotlight, a journalistic thriller about the Boston Globe uncovering the Catholic Church’s horrific cover-up of child sexual abuse. The journalists won a Pulitzer for this and the film is reportedly fantastic. And I think Truth is another one like this that tells the real story behind the CBS firing of a known anchor and producer.
    Selma was pretty amazing and so was Lee Daniels’ The Butler about the Civil Rights Movement.
    I don’t remember Double Jeopardy well enough to say anything, but I read A Time to Kill and saw the movie. Fascistic? It’s Grisham’s point of view that sometimes murder is justified. He was a practicing defense attorney. But that’s true in law over here: Justifiable homicide is a defense.
    Justice is so messed up over here and so unfairly meted out that it’s a national crisis, including the horrific death penalty.
    Gloria Steinem was so horrified by what Hustler portrayed that she had to speak out.
    She did and many people agreed with her. I wish there was more debate over here —
    about war and a lot more. The election campaigning is bringing out a lot of
    terrible, reactionary remarks and proposals. I just want to bury myself in mysteries.

  21. Pingback: AND ALL THROUGH THE HOUSE (1984) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

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