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.
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