Summer is here and murdered women are tumbling through my letter box. Not actual corpses, you understand, but fictional accounts of femicide. This time of year marks the start of a new publishing season. As the thriller critic of the Financial Times, I receive a lot of crime novels. Far too many are still built around violence against women and girls.
This fictional femicide reflects — perhaps even feeds — a wider misogyny
Here’s a few recent examples. Shed No Tears, by Caz Frear, opens with a description of a women being beaten into submission, then dragged across the floor, her skull bouncing, into the boot of a car. The story revolves around a serial killer who strangles his victims. Find Her Alive, by Lisa Regan, features Detective Josie Quinn who discovers a pile of “perfect white bones” laid out in the grass – the remains of a missing single mother. In The Familiar Dark 12-year-old Junie is found dead in the park in a run-down town in the Missouri Ozarks, next to the body of her best friend. Dark indeed, but nowadays, in this genre, ever more familiar.
Crime writing is dominated by female authors. Yet many rely on murdered women and girls as a story engine. Once dead, the victims’ corpses, or remains, are often fetishised. Joan Smith, the critic and crime writer, says: “There was a period when a lot of crime books looked like a competition to murder someone in the most gruesome way. One had someone tying a live woman to a dead woman. I just stopped reading instantly.”
Male authors, too, are guilty of lingering on the moment of death, or the sight of a female dead body. In The Intrusions, by Stav Sherez, Detective Carrigan enters a blood-soaked room where a young woman lies dead. The killer, we learn, held the dead woman up “like a shower head” for maximum arterial spatter when he cut her throat. He watched her “bleed and flail and struggle”, her blood gushing like a fountain, before carefully arranging her corpse and smoothing out her dress. Despite this splatter-porn, or perhaps because of it, the book won the 2018 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year.
Serial femicide also reaches the literary end of the genre. Long Bright River by Liz Moore was garlanded with praise by first division crime writers including Dennis Lehane, Paula Hawkins and Megan Abbot. At first glance the story looked interesting: a female cop in Philadelphia looking for her junkie sister. Then I read the jacket copy about “the bodies of murdered sex workers” and put the book down.
These storylines commit the worst of literary crimes: they are boring
These storylines commit the worst of literary crimes: they are boring. We’ve done serial killers. Hannibal Lecter is an unbeatable fictional creation. So why then does so much crime writing – meaning police procedurals, rather than spy thrillers – follow such regimented lines? Partly because dead women are an easy plot device. Why bother with a storyline around, for example, a corrupt politician, a terrorist cell or rogue scientist when you can detail the demise of a woman or a child in gruesome detail then put a cop on the trail. Crime writing is also a self-referential world, with a rolling circus of the same best-selling authors appearing together at festival after festival.
But, beyond the herd mentality of much of the genre is a more serious issue. This fictional femicide reflects — perhaps even feeds — a wider misogyny. Nowadays feminist activists on social media are deluged with misogynistic abuse and threats for simply defending womens’ rights and single-sex spaces. When Dr Jessica Taylor, a senior lecturer in forensics and criminal psychology, wrote Why Women Are Blamed for Everything, she was deluged with abuse, rape and death threats, and her computer was hacked.
Such hate and fury can spill over from the page into reality. In the year to March 2019, there were 58,657 allegations of rape in England and Wales. There were 1,925 successful prosecutions. “There is a real-life epidemic of violence against women,” says Joan Smith, who is also a member of the London Mayor’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board. “As a writer you have choices. It’s not as simple as people copying things from books. The problem is normalising it. If it’s turning up in books and films, it becomes background noise. If you are a decent novelist, you don’t need to portray grotesque sexual torture.”
Holly Watt, author of To The Lions, winner of the 2019 Crime Writers’ Association Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award, agrees: “I don’t think we should eliminate stories with women being killed, but at the same time, it’s 2020, we’ve read those books with a screaming lady victim being raped and murdered.”
This is not a call for any kind of censorship. Writers must be free to create and tell whatever stories they want, and publishers to publish them. But crime novelists can do better. In 2018 writer and editor Bridget Lawless founded the Staunch Prize for the best crime novel or thriller “in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”. Lawless rejected criticism that the prize ties the hands of crime writers or seeks to censor them. “There are many more exciting things to write about than fishing a dead woman out of the river,” she says. Many readers, Lawless adds, do not want to read such gruesome material.
I’ve written six novels myself and several would not qualify for the Staunch Prize. It would be a tough call to never show violence against women in a crime-writing career, but the question is how it’s portrayed. I avoid lingering descriptions of womens’ corpses. I make sure women characters in my novels have courage and agency.
So do plenty of other writers. I’m looking forward to reading Safe, by Jane Adams, about the feisty, tough teenage daughter of an organised crime boss who turns the tables on her father. Rising star thriller writers such as Chris Auty, author of Deep State, and Judith O’Reilly, author of Curse the Day, also get the balance right. Their female characters fight for their lives when they have to – and leave their would-be killers flat on the floor behind them.
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