Does crime fiction delight in the brutal killing of women?
An essay by Craig Sisterson, founder of the Ngaio Marsh crime writing awards, on the apparent ceaseless desire for crime writers to think up new and ingenious ways to put women to death.
Jacquilyn Keevins was a young mother who was strangled with her tights in a Glasgow back lane after a night of dancing in May 1968 as the Tet Offensive raged in southeast Asia. Her death bisected the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy. Jacquilyn was the first victim, sadly not the last. Ann Ogilvie was found in a derelict tenement that November, then Marion Mercer was discarded like trash in a backcourt after Burns Night.
Three fictional women murdered by a fictional killer in The Quaker, an acclaimed novel from University of Otago professor Liam McIlvanney. An acclaimed novel that’s inspired by real-life crimes and the real-life terror felt by a city during the so-called Bible John murders decades ago.
The Quaker is a finalist for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Awards, as well as the CWA Historical Dagger in the UK. The book has already won the McIlvanney Prize in Scotland (named after Liam’s father William) and been shortlisted for other awards.
It's a superb crime novel, and it begins, like many, with a dead woman.
With less than a week until we hand out this year’s Ngaio Marsh Awards in Christchurch, I’m thinking far too much about dead women. The trophies are being engraved and I should be happily building Lego castles and space stations and reading stories to a four-year-old.
I should be formulating some fun questions to test keen literary minds like Dame Fiona Kidman, Professor McIlvanney, and Scottish crime queen and quiz fiend Val McDermid, who are all participating in the Great Ngaio Marsh Game Show & Awards on September 14.
But my own mind keeps circling back to dead women.
I could blame Reading Room literary editor Steve Braunias. His cheery email popped into my inbox asking if I’d like to write about “how crime fiction essentially demands the killing, often brutal and sadistic, of women, to provide entertainment”. My amigo Steve, sliding the blade in with a smile.
(Aside: Steve is a hell of a great crime writer himself. Check out The Scene of the Crime, a non-fiction finalist for our 2017 Ngaios, or any of his many insightful features on crime and criminal justice in New Zealand, including big cases like the Lundy murders. Dead men, dead women, crimes big and small, justice carried or miscarried, Steve has a great touch for it all.)
Or, I could blame the Staunch Prize, whose publicity hungry organisers decided the best way to address the real-world issue of violence against women and their own dismay about a growing fetishisation of violence in TV and film was to set up a books prize celebrating tales where no women was hurt or put in peril in any way whatsoever, gratuitous or not.
Sadly, a healthy debate about how best to address and portray violence – a debate that’s been going on within the crime genre for all 11 years I’ve been involved as a reviewer and for many years before that – got somewhat hijacked, becoming acrimonious and fatiguing.
It didn’t help that when questioned about the efficacy of their criteria (eg tales where women were sidelined as bit parts and ‘torture porn’ with male victims would be eligible, nuanced female-led stories that address violence against women in subtle ways were not), the Staunch organisers doubled down, Trump style. They publicly attacked female crime writers who dared to write about violence against women, posted a one-star review under a false name of a novel that won a major award, misled media about why a big festival withdrew its support of their prize, and made spurious claims about causal links between a genre they clearly haven’t read very much and real-world violence and rape trial outcomes.
The stink the Staunch Prize created in the last year or two is just “completely pointless and ridiculous”, McDermid told me at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Yorkshire in July. “So what, we’re not going to talk about violence against women or write about it and it will all just go away? History has shown us that if we ignore something and pretend it’s not happening, it’ll stop? No, that’s not what history tells us.”
McDermid has consistently said that as long as men commit acts of misogyny and violence against women, she’ll continue to write about such issues so they don’t go unnoticed. Other leading crime writers including Sara Paretsky, Denise Mina, and Sarah Hilary have expressed similar sentiments. In a recent article, “Why I won't stop writing about violence against women”, British barrister turned crime writer Helen Fields shared that she portrays the horror and wrongness of sexual violence in her novels because she’s seen its aftermath up close in her work as a criminal lawyer and experienced it in her personal life when younger.
There is a stark irony in a prize piggybacking off the #MeToo movement, which encouraged women to speak up and share their stories of violence and abuse, only to then ignore any such stories with their prize criteria and attack female writers who address such issues.
Silencing women: that’s the solution, right?
But if I’m thinking too much about dead women right now, can I really blame Steve or Staunch? Or should I look more closely at the hugely popular form of storytelling that’s captivated me since I was a young kid devouring Hardy Boys mysteries from my school library in late 1980s Nelson?
Put simply, does crime fiction rely on dead women to entertain readers and sell books?
I read a lot of crime fiction, and purposely read widely across sub-genres and author nationalities. I’ve read more than 1,000 novels since I began reviewing, but this still only scratches the surface of what’s out there. A quick search shows that 282 hardcover titles were added to Amazon’s Mystery, Thriller, and Suspense category in the last 30 days. That’s not counting new e-books and paperback originals. There’s a veritable ocean of crime writing out there nowadays, and I can only speak from my experience as a reviewer, awards judge, festival chair, and keen reader who probably swims in better quality waters overall.
Candidly, I know that there are plenty of books out there that could be termed ‘torture porn’, thrillers that lean towards schlock horror tropes where sadistic violence is used as a plot device, an attempt to titillate the audience, to mask flat characters and poor writing.
I read little of those. As McDermid told me at Harrogate, “There is gratuitous, horrible stuff, and I don’t read those books and don’t recommend those authors." I heartily concur.
For me, I’ve been okay with momentary brutality in books when it’s done with nuance and seems to have genuine purpose rather than trying to out-shock the market. Torture porn can go in the bin. Every crime reader likely has their own line, and it may be a case of the classic quote from US Supreme Court judge Potter Stewart when trying to define ‘hard core pornography’ in a 1964 appeal of a theatre manager’s conviction for showing an obscene film: “I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."
While many of our Ngaios finalists this year wouldn’t qualify for the Staunch Prize, I don’t believe any of them are misogynistic or gratuitous in their storytelling. Collectively their books explore a range of important real-life issues through the prism of a page-turning story, and overall are about as close to ‘torture porn’ as Auckland is to London. If you swim.
The majority include some violence against women (in many cases against men and women), but is that a problem in of itself? Or does how things are portrayed matter more?
(Incidentally, eight of the 12 storytellers who are Ngaios finalists this year are women).
Even leaving aside torture porn or gratuitously violent tales, and only having read a tiny fraction of all the crime fiction, I am fairly confident in saying the genre as a whole likely has a disproportionate number of female victims compared to real life. Various studies over the past decade, including a major survey of 202 nations by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime in 2013, have found that 70-80% of murder victims are men. In Australia it was two thirds, while New Zealand was one of only a handful of countries hovering around half and half.
However, more than 80% of victims of sex-related killings were women. The majority of women were killed by men they know, often in the home. Not strangers.
Interestingly, the Uniform Crime Reporting Program run by the FBI has found that white women are the least likely demographic to be murdered in the United States, debunking a popular myth that’s fed by news media coverage, television dramas, and yes books too.
So why does crime fiction include so many female victims?
Frankly, because readers – male and female, and most crime readers are female - likely care far more about female victims than male ones (taking this argument further, you should hear some of the stories about the complaints crime writers get on the rare occasions animals are hurt in their books. In fiction, readers care infinitely more about animal welfare than human victims of any gender). Talking to CBC Radio in Canada about this topic last year, British author Melanie McGrath mooted that while men are more likely to be murder victims in real life, women face a greater psychological fear of possible violence than men.
Reading crime fiction allows women to explore their greatest fears in a safe space, said McGrath. “In the vast majority of crime fiction… the case is solved, equilibrium is restored”, and more increasingly in modern times, “by female detectives who are given agency.”
Sally Munt, Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Sussex, concluded something similar in her 1994 book Murder by the book? Feminism and the crime novel, where she observed that feminist crime novels performed a primary political gesture of making abuse visible in a non-sensationalist way, coupled with a secondary function of reassuring readers and victims of abuse that resolution and recovery is possible.
In a 2013 study of South African author and Rape Crisis patron Margie Orford’s brutally violent Clare Hart novels, Rhodes University academics Louise Vincent and Samantha Naidu observed that crime thrillers offer complex plots, rollercoaster twists, action and suspense, and usually the triumph of the detective, whereas in real-life narratives there’s often no mystery, no thrilling plot, and no satisfying explanation to facilitate closure. “The value of fictionalised representations of violence should not be hastily dismissed because of a lack of verisimilitude,” said Vincent and Naidu, noting that in “transforming the banal of the real into the sensational of fiction”, Orford was helping make sense of the apparently senseless.
One reason I began by mentioning The Quaker is I think as well as being a great novel on several levels, it epitomises some of the complexities of any debate about how authors use and portray violence in fiction, particularly violence against women in crime fiction.
A male author writes about a male cop who is sparked by the death of three women to hunt a male killer. Sounds terribly tropey eh? That over-distillation strips the essence of the book.
Before readers even meet DI Duncan McCormack, a closeted gay Catholic cop from the Highlands, on page 17, there are several pages of first-person views from first victim Jacquilyn Keevins. We later ‘hear’ from the other victims too. “It was perhaps a foolhardy device to use in a crime novel, where everything should be explicable,” McIlvanney told me last year. “My main rationale was a desire to give voice to the murdered women – to let them appear not simply as plot points and victims, but as full-blooded human beings who enjoyed a vivid inner life before they became names in a newspaper headline.”
Many crime writers I’ve interviewed similarly want to give voice to their characters – not just the detectives – and speak to a variety of important real-life issues in their stories.
Those issues include violence against women. A fear that’s deeply held by many women, even if they are far less likely than men to be murdered in real life (in most countries).
After discussing the topic with his creative writing students last year, McIlvanney published in a blog a few suggested ‘rules of thumb’ his class came up with for “treating violence against women with due sensitivity in crime fiction”. Paraphrasing, these include:
- Avoid titillation in sexual violence and have violence off-stage where appropriate.
- Deal with the consequences for victims and investigators.
- Include female characters beyond the victim.
-Try to suggest the victim’s depth of character and something of their life beyond being a victim, allowing readers to hear their voice if possible.
- Show victims with agency and strength, not just sacrificial lambs for the plot
- Consign virgin-whore dichotomy to the lowest pit of hell.
Rounding back to the original question, on balance I don’t think crime fiction has an overall problem with violence against women, even if it depicts a disproportionate amount of it compared to real life statistics, sometimes brutally.
Dating back to the nineteenth century and novels like Dunedin lawyer and wannabe playwright Fergus Hume’s accidental global bestseller The Mystery of A Hansom Cab (1886), crime fiction has been an apt vehicle for exploring the places and societies within which its set. Readers are drawn in by mysterious or thrilling storylines, and great characters, and pick up plenty of social texture along the way rather than being hit over the head by soapboxing.
With a sleuth’s ability to poke their nose into all layers of society, from the outhouse to the penthouse, crime fiction has been called ‘the modern social novel’. Reading the better examples can give great insights into various places and issues around the world.
The harsh truth is that our world has a problem with misogyny and violence against women. Perhaps crime fiction, by reflecting the society within which it occurs, merely explores and emphasises the very real fears many women all over the world have, readers and writers included, regardless of homicide statistics. Rather than being part of the problem, perhaps crime fiction can even be part of the solution. So, bin the torture porn or tales of lurid titillation, for sure, but do go and grab some of the excellent crime writing out there.
This year’s Ngaio Marsh Awards finalists aren’t a bad place to start.
Winners of the 2019 Ngaio Marsh Awards for New Zealand crime writing will be announced in Christchurch at a public event this Saturday, September 14. Finalists include The Short Life & Mysterious Death of Jane Furlong by Kelly Dennett (Awa Press, $42) and Behind Bars: Real-Life Stories Inside New Zealand's Prisons by Anna Leask (Penguin Random House, $40).