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Her voice amid lurking danger: Reflections on some feminist crime novels

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April 19, 2020

In contrast with other genres in literature, in crime fiction, which mainly started in the mid-19th century, women writers (and even women sleuths) became active around the same time as male writers and sleuths in their stories. By some accounts around the middle of 1860s, both the first modern detective novels (by female as well as male writers in US, UK and France) and the first professional female detectives in them (one Mrs G — in one case, Mrs Paschal in another, both working for the British police) appeared. Most of us, of course, are more familiar with characters in the Golden Age of crime fiction of the 1920s and the 1930s, particularly, Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple and Dorothy Sayers’ Harriet Vane. The number of female writers and sleuths has proliferated in recent decades. It goes without saying that not all of the female crime novelists come out as feminists, and that some male writers can do feminist crime novels quite well.

Yet the stereotypical case of male crime novels has involved women as femme fatales (usually creatures born of male anxiety), or more often as victims of horrendous crimes, with a common display of vicarious eroticism over mangled beautiful female bodies. In more recent years we have met other creatures of male fantasy, like the freelance superwoman sleuth (and computer hacker) with a traumatised past, Lisbeth Salander, in the Swedish international best-selling Millennium series, that started in 2005 with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, and continued after his death by David Lagercrantz, stories full of rape, murder, vengeance and computer hacking of dire secrets. (On computer hacking, a worthy successor of Lisbeth in sheer technical virtuosity is a brilliant female black teenager, Sam Morpeth, in Christopher Brookmyre’s recent thriller, The Last Hack; all through her dangerous heroic exploits she, however, never forgets to take care of a younger sister with learning disabilities while the mother is in prison).

Another superheroine successor to Lisbeth is Nikki Griffith in the crime thriller Save Me from Dangerous Men by S A Lelchuk (an author who pretends to hide his maleness with that abbreviated name and conspicuous absence of photograph from the book blurb). Nikki is a Telegraph Avenue bookstore owner in Berkeley, who quotes Kierkegaard as a pick-up line for a cute Cal graduate student she meets in an all-night diner, but her main life vocation is as an avenger of battered and distressed women, roaring in a red Aprilia motorcycle all over Bay Area, using to good effect in her cause of righteous violence a whole array of her lethal possessions—a Beretta subcompact, a Remington shotgun, a 20-inch spring-board steel baton, brass knuckles, and, of course, a devilishly mean punch that has broken noses and ribs on mission jobs. As a self-appointed vigilante with a traumatised childhood, the way she single-handedly maims and kills three large brutal sociopath men clearly belongs more to the arena of juvenile superhero thrillers. The Cal graduate student later tells her: “I kind of feel I am dating Dirty Harry”, to which she replies: “My legs are way nicer than Dirty Harry”. And, of course, there are heart-breaking scenes between Nikki and her sweet drug-addicted younger brother. All this is tongue-in-cheek feminist overkill of male fantasy.

Her voice amid lurking danger: Reflections on some feminist crime novels

Along with superheroine thrillers coming to replace superman thrillers, there have been some attempts to adapt the classic noir style novels of the 1930s and 1940s (the most well-known of which include The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, both by James Cain, where male protagonists conspire with wicked women in doomed relationships), now with female protagonists as amoral drifters in a surrounding of sex, violence and dubious insurance policies. One of the more significant recent crime novels in this genre, with a definite nod to some form of feminism, is Sunburn by Laura Lippman, where the protagonist is a mysterious red-headed, determined, unscrupulous woman, Polly Costello, who had her share of abuse and violence in her past. In her onward, if tortuous, march through life many characters (including a lover) is collateral damage in her goal to what she regards a happy ending, of a decent life with her daughters and her freedom. Polly’s life philosophy is clearly stated: “The goal is never a man. Never. Men are the stones she jumps to, one after another, toward the goal”. “It’s hard to remember all her beautiful plans, which ones worked, which ones didn’t. She saved herself. She saved her daughters. Everyone else was… Lagniappe”.

Almost in reaction to the aforementioned preoccupation of male crime novels with beautiful female murder victims, and the popular media fetish around such violence in the real world, you meet in the novel, Still Lives by Maria Hummel the feminist provocative avant-garde artist Kim Lord, who arranges an exhibition in a Los Angeles art gallery of self-portraits in the guises of famous murdered women (the Black Dahlia, Chandra Levy, Nicole Brown Simpson, and several others), and ominously disappears. More than the events in the novel what makes a lasting impression is the brooding meditation on “women’s oppressive anxiety about (their) ultimate vulnerability”.

Her voice amid lurking danger: Reflections on some feminist crime novels

Both vulnerability and agency of women are upfront in the feminist crime novels. The exploration of the inner lives of women, slow development of characters rather than fast-paced action (‘less gunplay, more foreplay’), emotional damage in domestic settings and relationships—these are often in the main focus. Creepiness of toxic relationships underneath smooth bourgeois exteriors and highly unreliable narrators with porous memory provide the fodder for recent, supposedly post-modern, block-buster crime novels like Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Examination of unreliability of memory and effects of trauma are also special features of the novel The Witch Elm by Tana French who had hitherto been more well-known for her Dublin police procedurals. Another case of unreliable narrator is Nicki Clements in Woman with a Secret by Sophie Hannah; Nicki, a pathological liar, is an ordinary suburban wife and mother with a secret life online as nickibeingnaughty that became implicated in the main mystery. Yet another ‘unreliable’ female protagonist is a self-doubting agoraphobic middle-aged professional woman Anna Fox in a novel, obviously redolent of Hitchcock, The Woman in the Window by A J Finn (another male writer hiding his maleness); Joyce Carol Oates has described Anna as “a sophisticated addition to the sisterhood of impaired and befuddled female protagonists confounded by mysteries erupting in their lives”.

More than dramatic murders and mayhem some of the feminist crime novels prominently feature meditations on rape, suicide, child victimisation, dangers of online dating and so on. A striking example is the taut psychological novel He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly where the main violent event is a somewhat murky case of an apparent rape in a festival ground, and after years of anxiety and brooding over a white lie by the young female protagonist, the unexpected twist at the end is the developing affinity between her and the somewhat crazed (and manipulative) rape victim, in the process even tearing asunder the former’s intimate relation with her boyfriend, father of child, and a fellow protagonist.

For Sara Blaedel, popular writer considered the ‘queen of crime’ in Denmark, serial rapes in the forests outside Copenhagen provide the sinister theme of her novel, Forgotten Girls, and the context of anxiety about online dating and faceless predators in her novel Call Me Princess—the detective in both cases is troubled, workaholic Louise Rick.

Her voice amid lurking danger: Reflections on some feminist crime novels

A Darkness Descending by Christobel Kent is about the quiet suicide of a pale beautiful woman, longtime partner of a charismatic Florentine politician, in the context of Italian local political campaigns against corruption; it is interesting to note that the side female characters (like the wife and daughter of the old male detective Sandro Cellini, both quite sharp) play important roles in the investigation.

Child abuse plays a central role in Forgotten Girls by Sara Blaedel, in The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld, and in The Soul of Discretion by Susan Hill.

Female friendship and rivalry, female rage and revenge, resilience, ambition and hard work, all appear in the limelight of Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott. We see two talented chemists, Kit Owen and Diane Fleming, reunited a decade after high school in the lab of Dr Lena Severin, a pioneer of research into premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). Diane’s particularly is a mysterious figure of beauty and fragility combined with demonic power; the usual tropes of female victimhood are inverted to show us a world of dark and violent agency of women, and there is quite a bit of blood all around—menstrual, animal, and the victim’s.

In some of the novels the secondary plot into the inner life of a woman becomes almost as important as the main mystery. For example, in the psychological thriller The Stranger Inside by Lisa Unger it seems that at least as important as tracking a serial vigilante killer is the journalist protagonist’s struggle as a mother, with her conflicted feelings about motherhood (of a small child) and the loss of self—the enveloping fog of “sleep deprivation, hormones, nursing, constantly monitoring needs, plagued with worry, fear, overwhelmed by love”.

While the literature is by now full of cold, hard, world-weary female sleuths, there are also some amateurs, who are touchingly candid about their hesitations, doubts, and trepidations on the job—as, for example, in Death in Paris by Emilia Bernhard; Rachel Levis, the protagonist/sleuth is overpowered in shock when she sees a blood-splattered dead body and takes days to recover: “Rachel remembered the emphatic un-aliveness of David’s corpse. It hadn’t looked dead the way her first pet, Wilfred the hamster, had looked the day she came home from school and found him cold in his cage”.

Finally, in many of last year’s lists of most notable crime novels you’ll find mention of a racy debut novel by Kirstin Innes, Fishnet, where paradoxically you may not find any real conventional crime. This is a novel, based on the journalist-author’s assiduous research into the lives of sex workers in Scotland (hence the fiction is sometimes a bit too didactic), exploring the shades of vulnerability, power and choice of the women involved. Contrary to the moral certainties of genteel society often imposing false victimhood on them, you see here complex layers in their lives and the author’s empathy for their career choice and self-assurance, particularly when you look at the alternative career of most low-pay dead-end jobs for women, including the one our protagonist gets (and loses).

Meet in this novel the foreign (probably Scandinavian) blond escort, Sonja, who finances her graduate study in the local university through this career, and who is also active as an organiser of local sex workers, talking to the protagonist:

“What you know is horror stories of rape and powerlessness, that teach us to prize our virtue, to keep our legs closed, that nice girls don’t do things. What you think you know is stereotypes about drug addiction, about desperate girls out there on the street.. yes, this is all there;…but it is not a complete picture……We make a distinction. There is a world of difference between someone like me, who has chosen this job, actively chosen it, who made an informed decision, who works from a flat or hotel rooms and manages her own advertising—you know, there is almost nothing the same with me and someone who is forced out on the streets to fund her addiction. …But the vast majority of the world, they will run the two lives together in their heads, you know? It all comes under the word prostitute, and oh, that means bad things”.

In the sex workers’ union meeting there is a dowdy lady who is with the local well-meaning social organisation Ways Out Initiative, addressing them on behalf of the local council, trying to help the women find the means and the information for what she considers a less degraded and more dignified life: “we want to get every woman in this city who is exploited out of the sex industry and into proper, dignified work”.

To this Helen, one of the sex workers, presumably without the university education of Sonja, yells: “You sayin’ ma work’s not dignified, eh?…..You dinnay think of us as real people, do ya? Oh, aye, ye’ll say you do. But what you’re meaning is, we’re aw poor wee victims. Intit? …..You canny admit that whit we do is work, or that mibbe, actually somewan might choose to do whit we do! So fuck off—with aw yer victim shite, yer sexual abuse survivor statistics.”

All this is to illustrate the range and depth of feminist crime novels today, and how various boundaries are being pushed. We’ve come a long way since the days of Miss Jane Marple with her knitting needles.

The article was first published in the blog 3 Quarks Daily. The author is Professor of Graduate School at University of California, Berkeley. His most recent are Awakening Giants, Feet of Clay: Assessing the Economic Rise of China and India, Globalisation, Democracy and Corruption: An Indian Perspective, and Smriti-kandyuan

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