Iconography: It’d Be a Crime Not To

Discuss the women of crime, that is. Crime fiction is still seen as very much a gentleman's genre, something at which fans of Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith, for a start, scoff vigorously (if scoffing can be performed vigorously). It isn't all Arthur Conan Doyle or hardboiled detectives with endless contempt for women (hi there, Raymond Chandler), however—no, indeed. What does it mean for women to be writing crime fiction, in a world where women are subject to so much crime? Writing in a genre, furthermore, in which women characters are often cardboard floozies, or victims, or temptations, or unremarkable?

I'd never been much into crime fiction, but, last year, I thought I'd try and work my way through a chunk of Agatha Christie. This turned out to be a mistake as far as I was concerned. It wasn't that she wasn't clever—she was—and it wasn't that her work wasn't brilliantly plotted, even if it has suffered with the flow of time. I was told recently that the way British crime fiction has evolved is to allow the reader tiny clues to solving the mystery, where American crime fiction prioritizes moving readers through the atmosphere of despair and confusion: Chandler's much-loved The Big Sleep is a case in point here, with its murder that never actually is solved. If so, Christie represents the very best of British crime fiction.

The thing is, the element that struck me most about Death in the Clouds was that its young couple bond over a mutual dislike of black people. Murder on the Orient Express is just a racism fest. Christie's most successful novel, And Then There Were None, the bestselling mystery novel ever with sales of over 100 million, originally had a title featuring the n word. It's hard to go about supporting women writers when, well, they clearly weren't writing for you, but using discrimination against people like you as a casual part of their writing. It's telling that Christie gets to be a woman writer icon regardless, where I'm sure not seeing women crime writers of color applauded with anything close to the same kind of appreciation.

I think the only crime book I've truly enjoyed in the last couple of years was Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr Ripley, which was amazing. Highsmith herself has since suffered in my estimation, with my having discovered her astoundingly racist (surprise!) and misogynistic (not so much a surprise, having read Ripley) views. Readers, it would be lovely to be able to sit back with books and not discover their authors hate me. I dream of such a day. Until then: Tom Ripley is a young man with a gift for impersonation, who stumbles across an opportunity to escape poverty and go to Europe. He becomes obsessed with Dickie Greenleaf, the heir he is supposed to be coaxing back to the US. Ripley kills Dickie and steals his identity, rapidly becoming enmeshed in a tangle of complications even as he repeatedly kills to disentangle himself.

There's so much potential in the book that never quite gets there, kind of like what I feel for Christie's and Highsmith's work in general. There's a clever rejection of the American dream as Ripley explores what it is to be a poor American thrust among rich ones living cross-continental lives. Here is where Highsmith shows herself to be a fine writer. For a 1955 novel, there's a beautiful critique of the societal alignment of queerness with criminality. Highsmith shapes her writing so as to position Ripley as queer, but not to make his orientation explicit, or even to nail down the nature of his desire for Dickie: is to be with him, to be him, to have his lifestyle? We're therefore made to relate to Ripley as a person rather than as a representative. There's a nuanced relationship with sexuality and desire here, and I'm all too glad that this is an iconic crime book for that.

My experiences with crime fiction have been a little unfortunate, shall we say. I live in hope that there are women crime writers whose work I can actually enjoy. And I'm not any closer to discovering what makes the women of crime in particular tick, apart from the love of a finely executed story, and a love of danger. Regardless, there's something extremely potent about women operating so cleverly in this man's realm, and being so successful at it.

Comments

21 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Feminist crime fiction

Thanks for this post, Chally! I agree with you—some of the iconic crime fiction by women that I've encountered over the years has been problematic when it comes to race (and class, and gender, and on and on) as well. I'm glad you enjoyed The Talented Mr. Ripley, though; it's been on my list for a while and you've reminded me to actually read it.

I just wanted to point readers in the direction of the Bitch Book Club, which is currently reading feminist crime fiction. Last month we read Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers, and we'll be reading books by Sandra Scoppettone and Laura Lippman in the upcoming months. Though not perfect by any means, all are crime novels with feminist authors and they might be good suggestions for feminist readers who love crime fiction.

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

Crime vs mystery

I'm not sure I'd group Christie and Highsmith together in the same genre, that whole difference between crime, which I think of as edgy and dark with imperfect protagonists, and mystery which has that "cozy" category that so many female writers end up in, with the cast of characters, a rather easy murder case, and the focus is more on the setting. I think of Christie as being in the cozy category, myself, since she seems rather formulaic and obvious.

I don't read lot of crime novels, really just the Millennium trilogy by Larsson, but just got The Talented Mr. Ripley from the library, so I'm eager to start it. I've really been enjoying your posts!

What strikes me about this

What strikes me about this post is that the two female crime writers are not modern ones, and when I browse the mystery novels written by today's authors, I still find them to be overwhelmingly male. The only modern female crime writer I can think of is Sue Grafton, who wrote the "A is for Alibi" series. I have not read any of her books, however, so I don't know if she falls into the racism and misogyny problems that seem to plague her predecessors.

Minette Walters

I have long been a fan of mystery fiction, ever since I read Minette Walters' 'The Dark Room' when I was seventeen. Walters' is English, dark, gritty, and never provides easy answers to the horrors perpetrated in her books, even after the killer has been revealed. She has fascinating, multi-layered female characters, though they are not always likeable; in fact she does not really deal in easily likeable characters, male or female. However, she forces the reader to question their own motivations while reading. She has (as far as I know, since her latest book is not available in the US yet) only dealt with race directly once, in 'Disordered Minds,' which looks in part at the anger and frustration that builds up after years of being bullied for being of the 'wrong' race and class (the British are great for elucidating the complex interactions of class). For a list of her novels, you can look here: http://www.minettewalters.co.uk/books/index.htm#1

Denise Mina is also excellent

Denise Mina is also excellent regarding class matters. She is a Scottish writer.

Author suggestions

Love crime fiction. Interesting post. What gets me about American crime fiction, the ones I've found are pretty much by white authors and strangely in their books they pretty much take the time to identify the race of each character that is not white. Meaning, it's noteworthy at times but when race is not mentioned I get the feeling we're supposed to assume the character is white. It's distracting and, well, wrong?

Anyway - I'm not sure about the various categories of crime fiction: suspense, thriller, mystery - I'm not sure what exactly you're into - but I love these authors:
Linda Fairstein, Patricia Cornwell, Michael Connelly. Connelly's a man but I like his perspective. His character's motto is "everybody counts or nobody counts" and I recognize strong feminist undercurrents in his stories though none of these authors have probably ever mentioned the f word.

Apparently Connelly came to crime writing via Raymond Chandler but reading over Connelly's work, I can't help but think he took the good parts (compelling writing, etc) and left behind the other stuff (such as you mentioned).

So I recommend these three authors if you haven't checked them out yet.

Here we go again

And I will complain that none were French.

Love crime fiction

I read a lot of contemporary crime fiction. I tend toward the more cozy mysteries in general but will stick with an author if I love the main character. Val McDermid is my top female mystery writer, and I would recommend any of her series. Sara Paretsky is still putting out solid, dense, history-laden books, more in the hard-boiled detective series. Meredith Cole has published 2 solid, feminist skewing mysteries in the last three years; her first won an award for best new mystery.

Seems a bit unfair to characterize a genre with only 2 examples! There's lots of good stuff out there.

I love crime fiction/mystery novels.

I got it from my mom! I only tend to read women nowadays, and there are many (not that famous) terrific books out there. I wrote my master's thesis on a mystery series by Brit Lauren Henderson. She is part of a group who used to call their kind of crime fiction "tart noir" which describes it perfectly. Sparkle Hayter, Katy Munger, and Stella Duffy are a few of those writers. I like Patricia Cornwell, Denise Mina, Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, Lee Harris, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Kate Atkinson, Janet Evanovich, Laura Lippman - I'm sure I'm forgetting a bunch. Some of the authors I've listed are problematic, especially Cornwell and Evanovich, but it's pretty difficult to write an explicitly feminist detective story since so much of it takes place in or around the justice system, and the detective story conventions say that there has to be a traditional tie-up-all-loose-ends kind of ending, but many of the writers I listed above have overtly feminist protagonists, whether or not they identify as such. Some of the characters are professional private investigators, some are amateur I-just-keep-finding-bodies detectives, and some are just crime stories, like Kate Atkinson. Some are nice little stories about nice people and some have sex, swearing, and general bad girl-ness (that's Tart Noir all the way!). Obviously there is going to be varying degrees of competency in writing and everyone has different tastes, but there are plenty of female crime writers to choose from if you really look. Carrie Bebris even writes a series of mystery novels with Mr. and Mrs. Darcy from "Pride and Prejudice" as the protagonists!

for fans of Highsmith

I'd really recommend one of her forgotten works, "The Price of Salt," which she published earlier in career under a pseudonym Claire Morgan - not a mystery - but story that dares to be a lesbian romance outside of the era's (1952) prevailing idea of homosexuality as a danger, a crime, and a scandal. Heartfelt, complex, a road novel before Kerouac ever published "On the Road", it tells the tale of an affair between a young shopgirl and a married socialite - but very best of all, it ends not in sin and regret, but in joy.

"Anything which lies in the palm of love is good."

feminist crime fiction

Great post! I had never been quite into crime fiction until I took a course on feminist crime fiction this semester and realized that the genre is much broader than I had ever imagined. There are actually plenty of great feminist crime fiction writers out there (there's even a subgenre called lesbian crime fiction), who manage to subvert the genre while still keeping it interesting.
I would definitely recommend to you all Barbara Neely's novels (with a wonderful main character, Blanche, a Black housekeeper and amateur sleuth with a no-BS attitude) which focus on the intersection of race, class and gender in a very entertaining and intelligent way. "Blanche on the Lam", for instance, is definitely worth reading!

87th Precinct

Try reading some of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct. His characters deal with racism and misogyny in a very progressive way, even though the first installments were written in the 50s. You can start pretty much anywhere in the series, no need to read in order.

Feminist Crime Fiction

Chally,
I enjoyed Agatha Christie's mysteries as a rural teen in the early phases of feminism, so enjoyed your take on feminist/racist issues in her writing.

But for my last birthday, someone sent me Janet Evanovich's hilarious 'Seven Up,' featuring detective Stephanie Plum. Curiously, the latter novel now sits, care of a post-Xmas tidy up, between 'Foucault's Pendulum' (by Umberto Eco, author of the word-delicious 'Island of the Day Before) and Douglas Ezzy's 'Practising the Witch's Craft: Real Magic Under A Southern Sky.' The fiesty, independent, fearless Plum is that curious blend of workaday feminist and P.R. (Pragmatic Romantic).

And there is no shortage of feminist crime viewing on television: perhaps the best-known being Granada Television's rivetting 'Prime Suspect' series, starring Helen Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison.'

But other feminist crime genres abound on the written page, and I dare say that some of the following titles might prove provocative too:

'They Told Her No, But She Did Anyway.'

'They Break Women Don't They? A Study of Men Who Failed.'

'Yes Virginia, There IS a Feminist Santa Claus.'

And on that note, Chally, I shall wish you a happy and fruitful New Year.

More good writers

Try something by Ruth Rendell (and her other nom, Barbara Vine) for some good, non-stereotypical crime fiction. She is British and nonformulaic. Another great female British author is PD James. Rendell is very unpredictable and her characters true-to-life.

"a gentleman's genre"?

I am an avid reader of many, many different kinds of crime fiction and I'd say that it was actually one of the most gender-balanced of genres, as has been for some time. "The Golden Age" of crime fiction in the UK - the 1920s and 30s - was dominated completely by female writers (Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey ...) and crime writing continues to be an attraction for talented women. Lynda La Plante, Ruth Rendell, the inimitable P.D. James, Donna Leon, Ellis Peters, Susanna Gregory ... need I say more?

The phrase immediately before

The phrase immediately before that one is "still seen as very much," not "is".

P.D. James > Agatha Christie

I've read several Christie books and while I know she did great things for the genre and for women writers, I've found myself unable to be a true Christie fan due to the racism I've noticed in several books and to the formulaic plots. I do love Patricia Highsmith... Edith's Diary is a terrific piece of psychological horror. One fantastic female crime writer you didn't mention in the article is P.D. James (I used to think this author was a man... she isn't! The P.D. stands for Phyllis Dorothy). She's got a great cast of complex characters and her plots don't follow a formula. She's revived my ardor for detective fiction!

You know, I'm not super into

You know, I'm not super into crime fiction, but a) I really enjoyed this post, and b) now I've got to chime in with some crime fiction I did enjoy. I reviewed Eating Jesus by Elaine Marney when it came out in 2007, and enjoyed it so much I lent it around various people. In addition to its approach to sex and gender, it's set in Glasgow (with a Scots glossary at the back for those who are unfamiliar with the language) and focuses on sectarianism. For me it was really great to read a story set in a context with which I was familiar. It was Marney's first novel, and I don't think it ever got much attention.

"Eating Jesus" Scottish feminist crime novel

HI Nine,

I'm the author of Eating Jesus and I know it's a few years late but I want to thank you for your Skinny review - you totally 'got it'. General feedback on "Eating Jesus" seems to be that people hate it because it's very Scottish or they love it because it's very Scottish.

I got a few bitchy comments from the literatti that the book was a bit trashy because of the sex scenes - but I liked them! I also got a lot pf pressure from the publisher to put in a happy romantic ending but I've always thought that getting a man shouldn't be a prime motivation for a grown wumman.

It's interesting to note that this site is sponsored by "Smiiten Kitten" as I devoted a whole chapter of "Eating Jesus" to the ins and outs of sex toys.

I'm now writing a historical novel set in Govan, aimed at young women readers (although this time I won't have "Get tae fuck" as the opening dialogue - big mistake).

Anyhoo - you keep travelling and keep writing.

I'm not sure you can judge a

I'm not sure you can judge a genre by one very old female author/ a few books.

There are a lot of mysteries by female authors (and even some by male authors) with a lot of strong female characters these days.

About 10 years ago, my uncle said "there are no good female mystery writers".
I took that as a challenge. Every year for Christmas I give him 1 or 2 mystery novels written by women.
I've given him Margaret George. Terri Gerritsen (who by the way is Asian) and so many others I can't even remember off the top of my head. He has LONG since admitted that he was wrong, he just wasn't finding them on the shelves or picking them up if he saw them I guess.

I definitely feel like that genre has long since expanded from Agatha Christie + all men. The genre could use a little more diversity, I've only seen 2 series w/ a lesbian dectective & only occasionally do I find an African-American lead character. (I did just enjoy "the no 1 ladies detective" which features a female detective in Botswana - surprisingly written by a Causain man... which raises it's own issues)

Again, I think that if we can prove there's a market for this, it will expand.
I think we need to speak up when something is sexist & reward good writing by recommending to others and buying more of that authors books/asking our library to purchase more.

For example, I actually liked James Patterson's series Women's Murder Club, strong women who solved crimes & shared their lives together -- but when adapted for TV they began to spout stereotypical dialogue about shoes, shopping & boys. I complained to the network that that kind of writing is not what makes the series good nor will help their show. Now that Terri Geritsen's novels are being adapted into a TV show, they've made the characters all super-model gorgeous which is gross, but they've added an African-American partner which is a nice attempt to add some diversity.

feminist crime fiction

Coming in here WAY late, but:

To my mind, the problem is not so much the dearth of female authors of crime fiction as it is the fact that so many of them persist in relying on the same old sexist tropes. I wish I had a nickel for every female-penned crime book I've tried to read recently that opens with a graphic rape scene, proceeds to build a 'feminist' detective who's just a sex kitten with karate skillz, and refuses to let any of its female characters stray outside the bounds of traditionally-defined femininity. It's enough to make you want to pull your hair out.