The Bathwater Conspiracy
It may not be entirely clear from the title, but “The Bathwater Conspiracy” is a detective novel with a difference. Detective Mac Carson has been assigned to investigate the shockingly brutal murder of Alfi Longwell, a grad student at the local university. Which is odd, since Mac is not normally the department’s go-to detective for important cases, but who cares? Mac is still sore over the breakup with Georgie, but this case gives her a chance to spend more time with the classy Jo Hines, the ME.
Oh, in case you didn’t get it, all those characters were women. In fact, all the characters in the book are women. Set in some undefined future, “The Bathwater Conspiracy” takes place after an epidemic has caused irreparable damage to the human Y chromosome, resulting in the extinction of the male half of the human race. The world is now run by women, who reproduce using stored “genetic material.”
I was a little leery going into this book, just because I am always excited to read books about all-female or female-dominated societies, but am so often disappointed. Somehow they so frequently manage to be full of misogynistic stereotypes, even, or sometimes especially, the ones that are trying to be feminist. Creating a fictional world in which men are exploited and oppressed by women is a dangerous business, because THAT IS HOW MOST MEN EXPERIENCE THEIR REALITY. THAT IS HOW THEY JUSTIFY THEIR EXPLOITATION, OPPRESSION, AND VICIOUS ABUSE OF WOMEN. And so many women, motivated by equal parts pity and pride, are all too quick to perpetuate the stereotype.
“The Bathwater Conspiracy” neatly manages to avoid that. It’s in many ways a typical crime novel, with the tough, slightly cynical, independent-minded detective trying to figure out an unusual case while navigating between the boss with their own agenda and the naive, by-the-book subordinate who helps and hinders in equal measure. It’s just that all these characters are female. The world is much as it is (although with less physical violence and more chocolate) and people are much as they are (only slightly less violent and slightly more interested in working together), only they’re all female. This allows a refreshingly wide variety of female characters, none of whom feel forced or tokenish.
The genre straddles a line somewhere between hardboiled and cozy. Or rather, it’s certainly not a cozy mystery, but for the most part it’s not as grim as your typical hardboiled mystery. Crime still happens, but the main serious crime is not murder or assault, but kidnappings carried out by couples who have been unable to conceive and are desperate for a child, whom they will lavish with love and affection–children are rarely in danger, regardless of who is taking care of them. The horrific murder of Alfi is outside of everyone’s experience, and Mac is determined to figure out what happened.
SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT
The astute reader will probably guess pretty early on what is going: there is a secret plan to start creating men and use them to freshen up the stores of genetic material. Only they end up unleashing a monster, one that Mac wants to track down. As she digs into article and textbooks on the obscure topic of “Men’s Studies,” she realizes that “Jo Hines and I had looked for a monster to explain Alfi Longwell’s death. I had just found it. The monster lived here in these old, dead files from a history we had all but forgotten.”
Still, people tend to forget the lessons of history, especially when the urge to reproduce is strong. And if the society could successfully start creating males in large numbers, there would be no telling what might happen–or maybe it would be all too easy to guess. As Mac discusses the problem with another character, they say:
“And everybody would want boys. Just for the novelty of it.”
“Yes they would. We raise our daughters like little princesses. Can you imagine how sons would be treated?”
“Like little princes. Who would grow up to be kings. And before you know it, our daughters are back to being beaten and burned and set out on hillsides to die.”
“The Bathwater Conspiracy” is in many ways light, quick reading. But it’s also a trenchant commentary on society, human nature, and the problem of what to do about men. If you’re looking for some kind of feel-good, men-are-naturally-good or they’re-just-the-same-as-women story, it will probably upset you (which is all the more reason to read it). But if you want a genuinely subversive, female-oriented story, you should read this book.
Buy link: Amazon