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MEL MCGRATH: Is reading crime fiction written by women a feminist act?

'By virtue of their historical position, women crime writers have always had a particularly keen nose for the layered, intersectional kinds of injustice where gender meets age, socio-economic position, race and class.'
'By virtue of their historical position, women crime writers have always had a particularly keen nose for the layered, intersectional kinds of injustice where gender meets age, socio-economic position, race and class.'

It’s not that men can’t write women but after so many centuries of men telling women’s stories, there is a particular power in women writing and reading our own

Every woman crime writer I know calls herself a feminist. Many of the male writers I know do too. Crime fiction has moved on from the common tropes established mostly by male writers in the last century, where a woman dies in order that the men who investigate her death can be heroes. The blonde femme fatales with their hourglass figures and rapier nails who populate the novels of Raymond Chandler and Micky Spillane exist only as historical souvenirs or else in heavily ironic contemporary parodies. But reading crime fiction written by women remains a powerfully feminist act.

Why?

Because crime fiction written by women often reflects parts of the female experience which remain taboo and are frequently neglected, both in other genres and by male writers. Women have long turned to crime fiction, both as readers and writers, because it explores the place male writers and readers often fear to tread — where female power, terror and rage intersect. In women’s crime fiction, what might seem on the surface to be a story about women aggressed by men is often a cover for a deeper more disturbing truth. Take Gillian Flynn’s 2012 international blockbuster Gone Girl , the book that kick-started the current popularity of psychological thrillers in domestic settings. On the surface it’s a revenge thriller of a scorned woman against her feckless husband but look a bit deeper and you’ll see that the protagonist Amy’s real rebellion is against the parents who ruthlessly pressured their little girl into becoming the ‘perfect’ daughter, then exploited their confection for financial gain in a series of ‘Amazing Amy’ children’s books. The plot of Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects , may revolve around a serial killer of young girls, but the story it tells is of a rage-filled power struggle between mother and daughter. In my own psychological thriller, The Guilty Party , a group of frenemies witness an attack on a stranger and fail to intervene. The novel explores questions about whether doing nothing makes you culpable.

Women do not live our lives for, or in the shadow of, men, and we want our stories to reflect that reality.  If you’re looking for a read that passes the Bechdel test, where two women talk to each other about something besides a man, then crime fiction written by women can be the place to find it. We know how deep and complex our relationships with other females can be. And while plenty of contemporary male crime writers wisely reach beyond the misogynistic femme fatale/Madonna-whore tropes of old school noir, few are able convincingly to portray the myriad ways women exert power over and betray each other with the brilliance and dark wit of, say Liz Nugent or Megan Abbott. Belinda Bauer writes about children caught up in violence in a way that few authors in any genre can match.

Domestic doesn’t have to mean domesticated. Like Celia Fremlin and Barbara Vine, Margaret Millar and Patricia Highsmith before us, many contemporary female crime writers use the domestic arena to write about money, power, emotional violence, politics and the slim pickings often offered to women living in men’s worlds. In my Edie Kiglatuk series, set in the Canadian Arctic, amateur sleuth Edie confronts resource development, environmental degradation, multinational capitalism and geopolitics as much as she does murder or, for that matter, how to make a decent caribou head stew in a microwave.

By virtue of their historical position, women crime writers have always had a particularly keen nose for the layered, intersectional kinds of injustice where gender meets age, socio-economic position, race and class. I’m thinking here specifically of Barbara Neely and Eleanor Bland, who both tackled the myriad ways in which black women are excluded from power and wrote stories where their characters, and, by extension, their readers, fight back and gain agency and control over their lives.

Perhaps more than any others, those two words — agency and control — lie at the heart of why reading crime fiction written by women is feminism in action.

Through these books readers explore the uniquely female experience of vulnerability, of living with the daily experience of fear; the female sense of injustice, of having to negotiate the bewildering reality of being unheard and unseen but forever watched.  The gap between the law and justice has a gendered component that any woman who has been sexually harassed or assaulted is likely to be familiar with.

Crime fiction by women celebrates female resilience. The ability of women like Lynda La Plante’s tough-nut Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, Stella Rimmington’s dogged spy Liz Carlyle, Tess Gerritsen’s flashily brash Detective Jane Rizzoli or Ann Cleeves’ quietly steely Vera Stanhope, to be actors in their own lives, and, by virtue of their smarts and the hard-won authority that comes with their positions as cops, private eyes, forensic scientists and intelligence operatives, seek justice for others, often women.

It’s not that men can’t write women but after so many centuries of men telling women’s stories, there is a particular power in women writing and reading our own. Stories where we get to be the actors, to make the decisions, to put the wrongs right and, yes, to act as bitches. There is a female solidarity in women reading crime fiction written by women. In the act of writing and reading crime, we finally get to be the villains and the heroes that, as human beings, we truly are.

Mel McGrath is the author of The Guilty Party.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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