Depictions of violence and women in crime fiction (with list of STRONG WOMEN IN CRIME)

A few days ago an extremely interesting discussion kicked off in the ‘about’ section of this blog on depictions of violence and women in crime fiction. I’m taking the slightly unusual step of reproducing the thread here (in a lightly edited form), as it would other-wise remain largely invisible. It closes with a fabulously affirmative list of ‘strong women in crime’, sourced via Twitter and the blog.

With thanks to the participants in the discussion – Susan, Cassandra, Maxine and Bernadette – and to everyone who put forward their favourites for the list!

The discussion began with a comment about Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Roseanna (1965).

Susan Wright: I recently discovered your blog thanks to Mark Lawson’s ‘Foreign Bodies’ series on Radio 4. I’m enjoying your reviews and I agree with many of your opinions, especially about the cliched representations of women in some crime fiction. Like you I thought Varesi’s River of Shadows was wonderfully atmospheric but marred by the sex scenes. I’m now reading the first Martin Beck novel; having been told it was a Marxist critique and had a left-wing perspective, I was surprised by the prurient description of the victim, particularly the interview of her boyfriend by the US cop which goes into graphic detail about her sex life. I know this was written before 70s feminism, but I was disappointed all the same. It seems cliches about women and female sexuality are not limited to Italian male crime authors.

Mrs P: What you’ve said about Roseanna, the first Martin Beck novel, has really got me thinking. It’s a little while since I read it, but I understood the role of those sexual details in a slightly different way. I saw them as providing the reader with a portrait of Roseanna as a very independent, sexually-liberated person, and instead of indulging in the stereotypes one might find in literature of the time (that her sexuality was what ‘got her into trouble’), the authors give her full victim status. Beck, for example, never wavers in his quest to bring her murderer to justice. So in that respect the novel is arguably groundbreaking.

But I take your point, and think I may need to read the novel again, so that I can see that interview with the American cop in the context of the whole narrative!

Susan Wright: I agree it is a groundbreaking novel and the authors wanted to show Roseanna (and themselves) as modern and sexually liberated, but I found some of their approach quite disturbing, almost voyeuristic, although I suppose all fiction is voyeurism to some extent! As well as the American cop scene, at one point Beck asks a colleague to write a detailed description of the corpse which I also found a little prurient. I cannot ever recall reading a crime novel which described a male victim in that way. I’m only half way through the book but it is striking how few women there are and how marginal they seem, though I suppose this reflects how different women’s roles were in the 60s – so far there are no female police. I like Beck’s compassion, not just for Roseanna but for the woman Karin who worked on the cruise boat and has fled a violent man.

Cassandra Clark (author): I am disturbed by what Susan Wright says as it resonates so closely with my own feelings about the kind of obsessively detailed descriptions of violence against women in some crime novels. I don’t think it’s good enough to say it takes place in the 1960s so it’s OK. The same prurience is rarely directed towards male murderees. Maybe we should ask ourselves why not? I suppose until it is (though heaven protect us against what that will mean for our humanity) there will be no equality between men and women. This is just a thought. I have to deal with this problem every time I write because my series is set in the fourteenth century when things were a bit rough – and women had even less say than now.

Mrs. P: Depictions of violence against women in crime fiction (especially sadistic sexual violence) have bothered me as long as I’ve been reading in the genre, and I would agree with you that this is a topic that should be acknowledged and properly discussed. Every now and then I consider writing a blog post on the subject and then get cold feet, because in many ways it’s such a minefield. In any case – a few thoughts in response to your comment:

Time of publication: I agree that misogyny should not be excused if it appears in a book written in the 1960s, but it does provide at least a partial explanation that helps us understand its presence.

Authorial intent: some authors like Val McDermid have been criticised for writing eye-watering depictions of violence against women (usually by serial killers). I’ve heard McDermid argue that her intent is to highlight the shocking realities of misogyny and violence against women in our society, which are often ignored. However, the risk that a reader might get some kind of perverse kick out of those depictions remains, as the author can never completely steer the interpretation of his or her writing. Her later books have apparently toned down this element.

The same problem could be said to exist in relation to David Peace’s ‘Red Riding’ quartet (1974, 1977, 1980 and 1983), which explore the Ripper killings in some detail, and which I greatly admire. (This is where things get complicated for me – why do I view some depictions of violence against women as justifiable and some not? I need to think about this in more detail, but think it has to do with the purpose of those depictions / what the inclusion of those depictions achieves in the larger context of the narrative.)

Misogyny sells? One really depressing thought for me is that publishers / film studios are actively on the lookout for explicit depictions of violence against women (whether in crime fiction or other genres such as horror), because they know that these will sell. What that says about us as a society is pretty bleak.

Equality: funnily enough, I happen to be reading An Uncertain Place by the French crime novelist Fred Vargas at the moment, which features an unbelievably brutal murder of a man, with some pretty prurient features! Still undoubtedly an exception to the rule, and I agree with you that this isn’t the kind of equality for which we should aim!

There was a bit of a media storm in 2009, when Jessica Mann, an author and critic, declared that she was no longer willing to review some books due to their misogynist content. (Her original statement can be accessed here). Val McDermid then wrote a response (she felt that female authors were being unfairly targeted for criticism).

I’d be very interested to hear in a little more detail how you deal with all of these complexities as a writer yourself…

Maxine (Petrona blog): I am allergic to crime novels depicting violence (torture, serial killer, mentally unstable kidnappers, etc.) against women, children and other victims and I am afraid that the genre seems to be increasingly popular. I have failed to finish several “raved about” books on these grounds, and failed even to start others, e.g. Stuart MacBride’s latest whose plot blurb is horribly off-putting.

That having been said, I do not think the criticism of Roseanna by Sjowall/Wahloo is fair. I think this is a serious book, not prurient, and I feel that Beck’s sympathy for the victim drives him on to solve a crime that others would long since have forgotten. I think the S/W novels are as far from some of the poorly written, sensationalist rubbish that is written these days as it is possible to be!

Mrs. P: I feel the same way about Roseanna, but to be fair this was an impression gained from a partial reading of the book (am keen to see what Susan thinks on completion!).

Thanks also for the link (via Friendfeed) to the blog-post you wrote on the Mann discussion. Some extra links there that might be of interest to others…

bernadetteinoz (Reactions to Reading blog): This is a perennial topic and one I suspect will be with us for several generations yet. I do my best to avoid books in which the violence against women feels particularly prurient but, like you Mrs P, I might not always appear consistent as I do tend to take intent into account and, of course, it is usual that I have to infer intent from things outside the book in question (e.g. the author’s previous work). Somewhat perversely I absolutely do not think that we should be censoring our publications based on the fact that some perverted sicko somewhere might get some enjoyment or, heaven forbid, some ideas, from what he (and it will almost definitely be a he) reads. That way madness (and totalitarian dictatorships lie).

I think I do disagree with one point made earlier in this discussion, well half-disagree anyway. I think the reason we don’t see nearly as many graphic descriptions of torture and sexually motivated violence occurring to men in crime fiction is that the genre is after all in some ways a reflection of real life and that kind of violence does not happen as much to men in real life as it does to women. However, the kind of violence that men are often subject to – being shot or dying in violent person-to-person fighting – is depicted quite a lot. George Pelecanos’ books are full of it as are the books of many other authors I’m sure – but I can’t name heaps of them because I tend to avoid them just as I do the books in which violence against women for the sake of it appears to be a central point to the book’s existence.

Mrs P: I absolutely agree with you about the censorship issue, although one thing I’m interested in is the ‘self-censorship’ angle, by which I mean authors who may change their approach to depicting violence in a series, due to audience reactions or because they feel that they went a step too far in their early work. I’ve heard David Peace say (at a reading in Belfast a couple of years ago) that he would have written parts of his ‘Red Riding’ quartet differently today, particularly the detailed depictions of what was done to the female child victims in the novel. He saw this shift as being partly due to his own development as a writer; he now felt elements of those depictions were gratuitous. I’d be very interested to hear if other authors have modified their depictions of violence as their writing careers progressed (in either direction, in relation to either gender, and if so why).

‘Gendered’ types of violence as a reflection of real life: this is a really good point, and I think what Val McDermid was arguing when defending depictions of violence against women in her own books (as I heard her do at a Harrogate panel in 2006). I was barely able to read portions of The Last Temptation , but I could at least see what she was trying to achieve. It did put me off reading her works for a while though. George Pelecanos: another author I greatly admire, whose novel The Big Blowdown is on my list of all-time crime greats. His depictions of violence seem to me to be carefully contextualised in larger narratives of ethnic and class tensions, and work for that reason in my view.

Maxine: Agree with you both on the censorship aspects, and Bernadette makes a good point about the “macho” violence which is more commonly the way it is done to males in crime fiction, than the type of nastiness done to the weak (women, children). Reminds me of the way some comedians on TV are said to target the disabled.

Val McDermid seems to have toned down her torture-style books over the past few years, so she herself may be an example. Probably to do with appealing to a wider, non-crime-reading audience.

It is nice to me that some of the very best-selling and top (my view!) crime authors don’t depict unnecessary violence while still being hard-hitting, e.g. M. Connelly, D. Meyer, I. Rankin, R. Rendell, L. Marklund. I also like authors like Peter Temple who address tough issues such as abuse of children (in care homes), young women, etc. – making the topics harrowing and not airbrushing, but still not dwelling on them in unnecessarily “revelling in it” ways. Connelly, Marklund etc. do quite a bit of this, too.

Mrs P: I very much agree with your last paragraph, Maxine: a huge amount depends on the quality of the writer, and the skill with which he or she situates depictions of violence in the context of larger issues. That’s when the crime novel reaches its full potential as a vehicle for critiquing society, and highlighting crimes and injustices perpetrated within it.

Cassandra Clark: I do agree that context is important, but when people say it’s ok if well written this is to put aesthetics above ethics. Something to discuss there, I feel. I also question one of the contributors’ remarks about violence being mostly done to women and therefore it’s a true picture of society. (Novelists are not journalists.) I haven’t checked the statistics but I would imagine most murders are a result of street violence between young men. It’s the criticism of unbalance, also levelled at crime novels set in Iceland or Sweden – more corpses than inhabitants! – leading one to imagine the crime rate in these places is ten times higher than that in Chicago, tipping the balance towards blatant untruth and undermining the argument that they provide a true picture of society. What gets me down is the constant dwelling on women as victims. Yes, we know about misogyny but what do we know about how to fight back? If detailed descriptions of the nasty things people can do to other people is considered necessary to tell a good story then I want to see a few winning women in this literary-engendered battle. In fact, come to think of it, that’s how I deal with it in my own writing. Hildegard fights back. I hope she always will.

bernadetteinoz: I’ll respond to this as I was the one who made the original claim and I do think it stands up. If women are going to be subject to violence it is most likely to be domestic violence or sexual assault by someone she knows (and by knows I mean everything from is ‘married to’ to ‘has met briefly’) – that’s what the health stats say anyway (which I know about from my day job) – I think crime fiction reflects this, though of course it takes things to extremes (often for no good reason, sometimes to make a perfectly valid point) – of course there is also a whole load of serial killer fiction in which mostly women are tortured and whatnot, but most of these are cashing in on a trope that I think had its origins in something far less flashy and probably a lot more realistic (e.g. the guy meets girl and when she says no he decides she meant yes and rapes her scenario). That certainly appears to be what the early books depicting quite graphic violence from authors like Patricia Cornwell were doing (I think Cornwell lost track of this early theme, but that’s another story).

That said I think there is a whole load of crime fiction that does not treat women as victims – there are loads of strong female characters who fight the good fight either due to some trauma in their own past or their viewing of the realities of what has happened to other people they know. Certainly most of the crime fiction I read these days does not cast women as the perennial victim. But I rarely read any of the mainstream crime/thriller/ slasher stuff in which people are making things out of human skin or collecting women’s body parts or any of that kind of nonsense.

Cassandra Clark: Yes, I think I was generalising about mainstream i.e. best-seller paperbacks. What about a list of strong women novels then?

Mrs. P: Great idea – and a lovely way to wrap up this discussion.

Update, 5 December: Margot Kinberg has written a very thoughtful blog post over at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist about some of the more difficult questions raised in this discussion (such as why graphic depictions of violence sell). It’s well worth a read.

Update, 9 February: Thanks to author J.J. Marsh for alerting me to her excellent discussion with author Frances di Plino entitled ‘Feminists and crime fiction – an odd couple?’.


  • Lena Adams (Karin Slaughter’s Grant County series, USA)
  • Adelia Aguilar (Ariana Franklin, ‘Mistress of the Art of Death’ series, UK)
  • Jo Beckett (Meg Gardiner’s Jo Beckett series, USA)
  • Annika Bengtzon (Liza Marklund’s Bengtzon series, Sweden)
  • Tempe Brennan (Kathy Reichs’ Tempe Brennan series, USA)
  • Siobhan Clarke (Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels, UK)
  • Jenny Cooper (M. R. Hall’s Jenny Cooper series, UK)
  • Dr. Anya Crichton (Kathryn Fox’s Anya Crichton series, Australia)
  • DCI Kate Daniels (Mari Hannah’s Kate Daniels series, UK)
  • Evan Delaney (Meg Gardiner’s Delaney series, USA)
  • Marie Donovan (Alex Walter’s Marie Donovan series, UK)
  • Detective Elinborg (Arnadur Indridason, Outrage, Iceland)
  • Bell Elkins (Julia Keller, A Killing in the Hills, USA)
  • Erica Falck (Camilla Läckberg’s Fjällbacka series, Sweden)
  • Amanda Fitton / Campion (Margery Allingham, Campion series, UK)
  • Charlie Fox (Zoë Sharp’s Charlie Fox series, UK)
  • Ruth Galloway (Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, UK)
  • Bina Gelbfish (Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, USA)
  • Noria Ghozali (Dominique Manotti, Affairs of State, France)
  • Gunnhildur ‘Gunna’ Gísladóttir (Quentin Bates’ Gísladóttir series, UK; set in Iceland)
  • Thóra Gudmundsdóttir (Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Thóra series, Iceland)
  • Mumtaz Hakim (Barbara Nadel’s Hakim and Arnold series, UK
  • Dr. Clare Hart (Margie Orford’s Clare Hart series, South Africa)
  • Barbara Havers (Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series, USA; set in UK)
  • Hildegard of Meaux (Cassandra Clark’s Hildegard of Meaux series, UK)
  • Irene Huss (Helene Tursten’s Huss series, Sweden)
  • Smilla Jaspersen (Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, Denmark)
  • Lena Jones (Betty Webb’s Lena Jones series, USA)
  • Carol Jordan (Val McDermid’s Tony Hill series, UK).
  • Jayne Keeney (Angela Savage’s Keeney series, Australia)
  • Nhu ‘Ned’ Kelly (P.M. Newton, The Old School, Australia)
  • Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan (Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series, UK)
  • Edie Kiglatuk (M.J. McGrath, White Heat, UK; set in the Arctic)
  • Sal Kilkenny (Cath Staincliffe’s Sal Kilkenny series, UK)
  • Simone Kirsch (Leigh Redhead’s Kirsch series, Australia)
  • Anni Koskinen (Barbara Fister’s Anni Koskinen series, USA)
  • Aimée Leduc (Cara Black’s Aimée Leduc series, USA; set in Paris)
  • DCI Janine Lewis (Blue Murder, UK; TV series created by Cath Staincliffe)
  • Karin Lietze (Pieke Biermann, Violetta, Germany)
  • Dr. Sara Linton (Karin Slaughter’s Grant County series, USA)
  • Sarah Lund (The Killing, Denmark; TV)
  • Rory Mackenzie (Meg Gardiner, Ransom River, USA)
  • Kathleen Mallory (Carol O’Connell’s Mallory series, USA)
  • Ella Marconi (Katherine Howell’s Marconi series, Australia)
  • Miss Marple (Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series, UK)
  • Rebecka Martinsson (Åsa Larsson’s Martinsson series, Sweden)
  • Sharon McCone (Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone series, USA)
  • Anna-Maria Mella (Åsa Larsson’s Martinsson series, Sweden)
  • Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series, USA)
  • Alex Morrow (Denise Mina’s Morrow series, UK)
  • DS Rachel Narey (Craig Robertson, Cold Grave, UK)
  • Saga Norén (The Bridge; Denmark and Sweden; TV)
  • Maureen O’Donnell (Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy, UK)
  • Anna Pigeon (Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series, USA)
  • Stephanie Plum (Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, USA)
  • Annie Raft (Kerstin Ekman, Blackwater, Sweden)
  • Agatha Raisin (M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series, UK)
  • Annie Raymond (Penny Grubb’s Annie Raymond series, UK)
  • Detective Inspector Louise Rick (Sara Blaedel’s Louise Rick series, Denmark)
  • Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles (Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli and Isles series, USA)
  • Mattie Ross (Charles Portis, True Grit, USA)
  • DS Geraldine Steel (Leigh Russell’s Geraldine Steel series, UK)
  • Kay Scarpetta (Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series, USA)
  • DC Janet Scott and DC Rachel Bailey (Scott and Bailey, UK; TV)
  • Lisbeth Salander (Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, Sweden)
  • Jill Shadow (T. J. Cooke, Kiss and Tell, UK)
  • Vera Stanhope (Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope series, UK)
  • Clarice Starling (Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs, USA)
  • D.I. Roberta Steel (Stuart McBride’s Logan McRae series, UK)
  • Emily Tempest (Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest series, Australia)
  • Jane Tennison (Prime Suspect, UK; TV)
  • Elsie Thirkettle (L.C. Tyler’s Elsie and Ethelred series, UK)
  • Baroness Ida ‘Jack’ Troutbeck (Ruth Dudley Edwards’ Troutbeck series, UK)
  • Harriet Vane (Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane series, UK)
  • V.I. Warshawski (Sara Paretsky’s Warshawski series, USA)
  • Merrily Watkins (Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series, UK)
  • Hanne Wilhelmsen (Anne Holt’s Hanne Wilhelmsen series, Norway)

83 thoughts on “Depictions of violence and women in crime fiction (with list of STRONG WOMEN IN CRIME)

  1. Thank you for distributing and bringing to my attention this article via email.

    I have been an avid reader of crime fiction since I discovered Enid Blyton’s Five Find Outers and then at aged thirteen, Agatha Christie. It is the puzzle of the crime novel that interests me together with an interesting plot and richly drawn characters, and not the gratuitous and horrendous acts of violence inflicted upon either sex portrayed in many of today’s modern fiction. I’ve had to give up reading some of the ‘slasher’ type novels as, as well as not enjoying them, I don’t think they do my mental health any good to immerse myself in this type of world for a too longer period of time. I thought it was just me being too much of a prude so it is nice to know that other readers too have some reservations.

    Fortunately there are still lots of authors out there who can produce original exciting mysteries without resorting to too many torture scenes. I have recently discovered Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series and they are keeping me out of trouble for the time being.

    Keep up the good work Mrs. P…

    • Thanks, Lisa. I do read some books featuring strong violence, but I know exactly what you mean – I also have to seek calmer literary waters, to avoid overload and a rather negative mood. I hadn’t heard of the Bryant and May series (clever title), so thanks for that – will check it out.

  2. Strange no one mentioned the film of Jim Thompson’s ‘The Killer Inside me’ which I loathed, I know a lot of respected film critics came up with excuses for the violence in the film, I wondered if that was because the director was Winterbottom? In contrast a few days before seeing this film I watched an Italian version of Karin Fossums ‘Dont look back’, the film was called ‘ The girl by the Lake’. An excellent film, with the always superb Toni Servillo, Il Divo, Consequences of love, etc. No graphic violence, but a far better film. Is the reason for that because the book was written by a woman? It also brings up the point can a male author create a female Detective as good as Fossums Sejer?

    • Thanks for raising the subject of Thompson’s work, brianbird2012. I reviewed the novel back in July and thought it was brilliant psychological portrait of a killer (gave it my top mark of 5 stars). So it falls into that odd category for me of a work that is extremely violent, but whose violence is ‘acceptable’ (even though I found it hard to read), because it’s used to critique the kind of society that produces killers like Lou Ford.

      I had this to say about the film: ‘It received mixed reviews and generated controversy due to its graphic depiction of violence towards women. I’ve not seen it yet, but can imagine adapting such a book would be hugely tricky, especially when so much of the narrative’s complexity is communicated via Ford’s distinctive first-person voice’.

      I still haven’t seen the film, and my reservation about the possibility of effectively adapting it remains. Critical reactions appeared to be highly mixed.

      I don’t think that the sex of the author is necessarily a key factor. There are examples that cut in both directions, I think!

      • to be fair I’ve not read the book, it’s just the film. I don’t believe it’s necessary to be that graphic, suggestion is better, as they say about ghost stories etc, let the mind do the work rather than show the horror. Well it does seem to me we constantly hear the complaint that male authors, past & present, have not got it quite right re their main female characters, but less so female authors who have a male lead,or so it seems to me. I think Karin Fossum’s Inspector Sejer is a case in point, & of course Maj Sjowalls input on the Martin Beck books. Lets face it one of the standard refrains in crime fiction that if a murder is so horrific it can’t be a woman! Which is a fair point. Only male authors, scriptwriters seem to go for the really bloody stuff!

      • Thanks, brianbird2012. Well, I’m still not sure. There are women writers out there who depict violence pretty directly and graphically – Val McDermid in her earlier works and Mo Hyder to name but two. There may well be more men who do, as you say, but women can and do as well.

  3. What a fascinating discussion (which I mostly missed – caught a glimpse while supposedly working, and never got back to read through it properly). This issue is huge for the genre. I mean, the center of almost every mystery is an act of violence, but which kinds of violence and where the focus is – that is where the hard decisions have to be made, and where one’s thinking about gender and social justice will either be satisfied or disturbed or where you end up thinking “that was fun to read, but why on earth did I enjoy that?

    I gave a paper on the Sisters in Crime organization at a Popular Culture Association meeting a while back, which gave me an excuse to burrow around in the archives and learned that the issue of sexualized violence against women was one of the catalysts for the formation of the group. The other was unequal treatment of women writers in measurable ways – top awards, review space. – and harder to measure – advances, marketing, cultural capital. Though that first topic was raised in a talk Sara Paretsky gave at Hunter College that apparently has been lost, and a group was formed to try to examine the issue, it never took off. I think it’s partly because it’s too nuanced and issue to quantify, partly that nobody wants to be a censor or prohibitionist. The organization today is much more focused on supporting women in the genre whatever they read or write and that makes sense. But I think it’s an area ripe for analysis.

    I think what we are doing when reading or writing violence in part is exploring where we think this comes from in society. Is it a struggle between good and evil, a pantomime of people taking sides? An outcome of unregulated social conditions that destabilize a community? The way men and women express their sexual identities or work out their psychological problems? An exciting excursion on a carnival ride where we know we won’t actually get hurt because it’s not real (though that adrenaline is and boy, is it good), because violence is what happens somewhere else but never in my neighborhood? As an avid reader of this genre, I look for certain kinds of mysteries and avoid others, and I suspect all that has something to do with it, but it is, of course, far more complicated than that.

    I’m waiting for a copy of a crazy-expensive academic book from Palgrave, Rape in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and Beyond. I contributed an essay to it, but haven’t seen the others and the table of contents looks fascinating and right up my nerdy-fangirl alley.

    Oh, and (blush!) thank you for including Anni on your list. Anni, by the way, never gets her gun, at least after she resigns from the police and no longer has to be armed. This bothered an editor – really, would a tough woman in Chicago go around without a sidearm? Yeah, actually, they do it all the time. All of this stuff was very much on my mind working on the second in the (so far two-book) series, because balancing the weight of tradition (readers will expect this kind of suspense, this to happen in this scene), the reality of sexual violence and its effects, and wanting to be entertaining, but not at the expense of women’s lived experience – that was an interesting problem. For a nerd-fangirl.

    • Thanks very much for your thoughts, Barbara – I heartily agree with many of the observations and points you make, and it was very interesting to get your take on the issues as a writer as well.

      Thanks, too, for the fascinating insight into the formation of Sisters in Crime. Your comments about the difficulties of discussing the issue of sexualised violence / violence against women in crime rang particularly true to me. Those worries about being regarded as a prohibitionist, or inadvertantly ‘getting it wrong’ in this very sensitive area are partly responsible for my own reluctance to directly address the topic, even in the relatively modest context of a blog post. But yes, I agree absolutely – it’s an area ripe for analysis – and one that we need to keep coming back to on a regular basis.

      Looking forward very much to meeting your Anni properly soon 🙂 And I’ll check out the Larsson volume as well; many thanks for that link. I’ve had many a heated discussion about the rape scenes in the trilogy with good crime friends of mine. They have generated very divided views, I think it would be fair to say, and I’d be very interested to see whether that’s relected in the volume or if there’s a consensus on the role and value of those depictions.

  4. Some off the top of my head this afternoon:

    Two enduring strong women from the US: Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone.

    Emerging in the UK:
    Jane Casey’s Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan now on book three (where I am catching up with this author).
    Craig Robertson’s DS Rachel Narey, now up to book three. (Like Michael Robotham, Robertson changes the focus on the central character within a small group of protagonists; some may say just a couple but family members also feature.)
    Mari Hannah’s Northumberland-based DCI Kate Daniels, first two published with next two to follow in 2013. Realistic police procedurals.
    Leigh Russell’s popular DS Geraldine Steel series.
    Penny Grubb’s private investigator Annie Raymond, another series set in the north and now up to book three.
    UK author Quentin Bates’s ‘Gunna’ Gunnhildur, a sergeant at a police station in a rural area in southern Iceland. A very memorable character.

    Arriving in the UK in translation in December:
    Sara Blaedel’s Detective Inspector Louise Rick series with the first ‘Blue Blood’. Blaedel has been called the ‘Queen of Crime’ in Denmark.

    Will drop in with others as and when they come to me.

  5. Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli and Isles series.
    Karin Slaughter’s Grant County series which starts with with “Dr. Sara Linton, the town’s pediatrician and coroner, Jeffrey Tolliver, her wayward ex-husband and chief of police, and Lena Adams, the county’s only female detective”.

  6. Ruth Dudley Edwards’s Baroness Ida ‘Jack’ Troutbeck. The latest one – Killing The Emperors – is out now with Allison and Busby and sees the Baroness take on the field of ‘modern art’.

    And remaining in the arena of ‘comic crime’, no one would mess with L C Tyler’s literary agent creation Elsie Thirkettle.

  7. I would also nominate Kinsey Millhone, Sue Graftons private eye in her alphabetical series (A is for Alibi etc.)

  8. This is a really interesting discussion. I write with Louise Voss and we have a lot of debates about how we depict violence, especially violence against women, in our writing.

    In Catch Your Death, the protagonist is a woman: a female scientist called Kate Maddox. We tried to make Kate strong but also vulnerable. However, we had some criticism when the book was published about Kate’s strength and how capable she is… even though she ends up saving the world.

    When we set about writing the sequel, All Fall Down, which is out soon, we deliberately set about making her stronger, so she is not only intelligent and knowledgeable but ends the book as a kick-ass heroine – a reference point would be the transformation of Ripley between Alien and Aliens, or Sarah Connor between the first two Terminator films. The ‘baddies’ in the book are women and most of their victims are men (they’re kind of like evil Charlie’s Angels). We’ve deliberately tried to create a book where nearly all of the strong characters are women, partly because we hate the cliche of women being victims. Hopefully we’ve succeeded, although there is still a picture of a dead woman on the cover (not our decision)!

    • Thanks very much, Mark. It’s great to get your authorial perspective. I must say that I’d love to be a fly on the wall for your discussions, which I imagine are spirited, not least due to the fact that you’re a male-female writing team.

      The evolution of Kate’s character is fascinating, particularly your description of how the reaction to her characterisation in the first novel influenced your writing of her in the second. I’m very interested in this kind of complex interaction between writers and critics / the reading public.

      Dead woman on the cover: so this kind of image is clearly deemed to sell by some (the majority of?) publishers. How much say do authors normally have over cover images, I wonder? It must be hard for authors if they know that there is a conflict between the content of the novel and the image being used to publicise it.

      • Thank you. Yes, the cover of All Fall Down hardly reflects the contents. But we have to trust/hope it will make more people pick it up… It’s a tricky one.

        Re the interaction between us as writers and the public, we actually rewrote parts of Catch Your Death following early reviews on Amazon because we saw that the readers made some very good points… And we were determined to prevent the same criticisms when we wrote All Fall Down. I don’t believe in writing by committee but it’s really helpful to see how readers react to your work.

  9. Excellent discussion. I’m enjoying reading all the points of view, although I think it’s a discussion that will run and run. By the way, some of the most disturbingly graphic crime novels I’ve read in recent years have been written by Spanish writers (or those taking place in Spain or Portugal, like Robert Wilson’s A Small Death in Lisbon). But yes, I found Larsson’s trilogy grim as well.

    After reading some of those, I need a good dose of cosy to calm me down.

    I just went back to my copy of Roseanna to check about the level of prurience there. I think it’s true that the interview does go into quite a bit of detail about her sex life, but what’s interesting is that it was conducted by the American cop and Beck is reading the transcripts. It makes you wonder if that was the whole point: that the American cop had almost ‘passed judgement’ on Roseanna and is trying to prove she had it coming, while Beck feels compassion regardless.

  10. Thanks for this interesting contribution, MarinaSofa – I think you could well be on to something with your observation about the transcript and the different perspectives / attitudes of the US and Swedish investigators. So there’s a kind of comparative critique going on? It sounds exactly like the kind of thing S/W would try to do.

    And yes, it’s definitely a discussion that will run and run. I think it has to though – if we don’t reflect on this problematic issue at regular intervals we risk ignoring a really important aspect of the genre. Such splendid and thought-provoking responses too 🙂

  11. I have the visual imagination of a wet sock, so I have to confess that I often don’t register certain things unless they’re described very vividly. (I am very careful about the films I see for this reason, because when an image or picture gets stuck, I can give myself nightmares for days. It’s rather awkward at times!) As a result, I’m more likely to get irritated by attitudes than particular scenes, although there is often a connection between the two – I think extreme misogyny is more likely to inspire ugly gender specific violence.

    However, to put a concrete example out there, I’ve just about decided to stop reading Craig Russell novels, even though I’ve always liked the settings and the premise. I know the two cities he writes about very well (Glasgow and Hamburg), and find the level of really sadistic violence in his serial killers (particularly in his German-set novels) over the top. And I found what happened to one of the female police characters over the course of three novels really, really disturbing. The Glasgow ones have the problem that the main character has a nasty habit of thumping his way out of trouble and to the truth. Admittedly, I don’t think it’s actually done for kicks – it certainly says something about the character, who admits this isn’t fantastic behaviour – but it’s too much for me personally at times.

    So I suppose I’d see a distinction – between violence that’s borderline but plot appropriate, and just too much for me personally, which I’d simply choose not to read, and material that is actually problematic. Problem is, everyone draws the line in different places, and I’m not sure what one can actually do about really dodgy material except not read it. I’d hardly suggested banning it, and it’s not practical to do so even if there were scientific proof that reading gory novels has a measurable negative impact on everyday society. (Not to mention the fact that I’ve read more than a bit of non-fiction about people who wouldn’t physically hurt a fly but whose behaviour and attitudes were in other ways substantially nastier to hear about than the exploits of a fictional murderer.)

    Er, hello, by the way! Long-time lurker who’s finally decided to post.

    • Hello Lauren – I’m very glad that you’ve emerged from the shadows – nice to meet you! I’m just about to watch The Killing, so will respond properly to your comment in a little while, if I may!

      • That’s fine! (I’m not in the UK, or else I’d probably be watching too.) Speaking of Scandinavian TV crime, I’m reminded that the telemovies of Arne Dahl’s A-Team novels made the head of the squad female instead of male (the character’s pretty similar, if slightly more politically savvy), and I thought that worked remarkably well. Not that the books are short of female characters, exactly, but in a visual context I liked seeing a more powerful woman in addition to those in the squad.

        Thinking about this topic a bit more, I’m reminded of how irritated I was after reading four of the Bruno, Chief of Police novels in a row over the summer (as a substitute for actually going on holiday, hmph.) There are multiple central female characters, and the victims are by no means predominantly female (rather the reverse, in fact), and the violence is not extreme…(the excessive meat and booze consumption is probably more of a worry!), and yet my overall feeling at the end was irritation. Partly because the female characters seem to be either love interests – sometimes overlapping, which I personally can’t stand but realise is hardly something to criticize in a novel – or people whom our hero helps, but ultimately, because all the problems seem to be resolved by Bruno in tandem with the mayor, and I wonder why the men are making all the decisions! (It’s all the more annoying because the female characters are there, and are of themselves good, but they seem to have less agency than the hero’s dog at times.)

        OK, I think I’ve realised why I prefer to lurk – once I start I tend to ramble on…

    • Hi Lauren – back after a nail-biting two hours of The Killing – we’re up to the end of episode 6 and things are getting very tense!

      Thanks for your comment – several points there that are very interesting.

      I wonder how many readers there are, who, like you, have stopped reading novels by a particular author because of the way in which he or she chose to depict violence. What I found particularly interesting was that there was a cumulative effect for you over a number of novels in the series, rather than one specific incident that put you off. (Incidentally, I’m not familiar with this author – will check out the Hamburg-based ones just out of curiousity now, but am forewarned!)

      I think you’re absolutely right about that line: it is going to be drawn in different places by different readers due to all sorts of factors, and that makes debating the issue extremely tricky.

      • In answer to your second comment, Lauren:

        I haven’t yet seen any of the Arne Dahl adaptations (just finished reading the first book in the series) – how interesting (and heartening) that they made that change.

        I read the first in the Bruno series and didn’t get on very well with it, largely because the denouement involved a staggering dereliction of duty by the leading character. I can’t really remember much about the way that women were depicted, but I’ve had that sense of irritation you describe in relation to other series, such as the Italian Camilleri novels. I simply can’t get past the gender stereotyping in those.

        Do feel free to ramble on – you ramble very nicely!

  12. Wow that is a long list. I must admit to being surprised to see Lena from Karin Slaughter’s series mentioned. How far into the series did they get? Partly joking. I didn’t really think it all the way through when you asked for examples of strong women characters. I see I missed a bunch of them. My personal favorite is still Lisbeth Salander and Asa Larsson’s heroines as well. Will go through this list and see what interests me. Thanks for putting this list and discussion together Mrs P.

    • Yes, there was a reason for using the phrase ‘starts with’ and copying the details from the author’s site. I didn’t stay with this series to the end; I lost interest and it’s been years since I read them. Linton and Tolliver are the most memorable characters for me. And at the time of publication, these were certainly strong characters and remain so in the memory. I hadn’t even remembered Lena before copying her in for the full record.

      And Mrs P, of that threesome I believe it is another for whom you could worry more…

      • Thanks, Rhian. I’ll see what I can find out about Lena – I may put her in with Linton if she has a ‘limited’ role!

        Later: well, have checked Lena out via the web and will leave her where she is for now. Clearly a very complex character, but from what I can gather, her story ain’t over yet.

  13. Thanks for your comment, Keishon, but oh dear, what happens to Lena? I haven’t read that series -it doesn’t sound good… On second thoughts, don’t tell us just yet, it might spoil the fun!

    Lisbeth Salander and Smilla Jaspersen are my particular favourites, and I’m looking forward to meeting a number of new ‘strong women’ as I work my way down the list. My TBR pile has grown at a crazy rate during the past two days, and scarily, there are even more examples that have reached me via Twitter today that still need adding in. I’ll do that tomorrow after some shut-eye!

    • Hi Rhian and Mrs P:

      I read the entire Grant County series + 3 books from the series splitting off and Lena is not one I would view as a “strong woman” in the sense that you all mean and if you want to go into details – I can email you. It’s true she was the first female cop in Grant County. She is a complex and very interesting character. But there are things she does that had huge implications in the direction of the series that many people hated her for and she’s disappointed a lot of people. Even me. But after the shift in direction and the aftermath of it all, I came to like Lena again and she’s turned out to be a decent character but the baggage will remain and I think her story is done. I haven’t read Criminal or the one before that but I can get details of if she’s been in those stories or not. I doubt she has since Slaughter decided to merge her Will Trent series with her Grant County series.

      • Thanks for the extra clarification, Keishon. I’ll leave Lena where she is for now. I’m not sure what the standard definition of a ‘strong woman in crime’ would be, and in a way I’m happy to leave that rather fuzzy for the sake of inclusivity, and to allow slightly more unusual figures – like Miss Marple – to climb on to the list as well. Perhaps a topic for a future post…

  14. From little things big things grow eh? What a fascinating post this has turned into. Your request on twitter the other morning prompted me to start writing my own post which I think will morph into something more of a long term consideration of this issue during my reading next year.

    Loads of great strong women on that list including some new ones for me to check out. Thanks for posting this in a more permanent, reference-friendly format Mrs P

    • I know – quite wonderful to behold! I love it when a discussion really takes off like this (you can never quite tell if they will), and it just shows how many facets the debate about violence in crime has. I think the list at the end was also a great idea; otherwise we’d all be leaving the discussion feeling pretty depressed. I have lots of new reading as a result (handy in the run up to Christmas). Thanks very much again for your contributution to the discussuion, and I look forward to your own reflections on the issue further down the line.

  15. Great discussion and list of strong female characters. However, I’ll say that I read two of Karin Slaughter’s Sara Linton books and found that the author lives up to her name. The gratuitous blood and gore on the page against women, in particular, turned me off. Slaughter has been questioned about this by book reviewers, too.

    Also, a book by Tess Gerritson in which a major woman character is kidnapped, tortured and raped, and it had reawakened horrific memories of her college days, when the same thing happened turned me off to her writing. The descriptions were brutal.

    I must say that I’ve been turned off to books depicting brutal violence against women since I began reading crime fiction as a teenager back in the Middle Ages. I remember preferring books without it and shunning the Mike Hammer/Mickey Spillane books, which depicted mutilated women on the covers. Ugh!

    What concerns me is why are themes of female mutilation, sexual assaults, murder promoted by publishers? Why do they sell well? Who buys them and why? Why do covers show this? I’ve read articles about publishers requesting covers showing all types of brutality against women when the victims inside the pages aren’t even women! Why is this true? It must reflect the still existing inequality of women and the dominant misogyny — as those of us here across the pond saw during the presidential elections going back months: the most derogatory remarks against women and replayed in the press over and over — and over birth control! Unfathomable, yet still predominant in some circles.

    I gravitated towards crime fiction written by U.S. women writers starting in the 1980s who had strong characters — Sharon McCone (Marcia Muller), V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone, without gratuitous violence against women and where the protagonists were strong, independent, smart, capable — and won!

    I read the Stieg Larsson trilogy and skipped some of the violent scenes. Interesting that the worst misogynist was a nazi. But so glad Lizbeth Salander got even for the violent rape; women in movie theaters were reported to have cheered upon seeing that! I can see why given the relentless reporting of crimes against women over here every day in the news — and that’s what is reported. Domestic violence and crimes against women are on the rise over here.

    To me what’s in books does reflect social realities, but why should authors, publishers, booksellers, and sometimes even crime fiction conferences, reviewers, prizes — reward this and encourage it? It is frightening. Who reads this stuff and enjoys it and why? These need good answers and profound social changes. And I think conscious, smart women writers have led the way on this.

    • Aha! I was wondering how long it might be before this point was raised: that some of the writers on the ‘strong women’ list are also responsible for scenes of eye-watering violence against women in their novels. The contradiction has been touched on above in relation to Val McDermid’s early works (her defence of the violence she portrayed was that ‘this is what happens in the real world’). Key points for those who have commented here appear to be intent (what is the author setting out to do? is there a rationale for the violence?) and whether the violence is grossly gratuitous or not. I haven’t read any of the Slaughter series, and one of the reasons why is probably because I can see from the blurb that the level of violence would be too much for me. Quite a few people here are now naming authors / series that they stopped reading due to depictions of violence, which is interesting.

      I agree with you absolutely that the way in which market forces may well encourage publishers to seek out works containing graphic depictions of violence against women is a huge concern. Lots of big questions there that still need to be addressed.

      Stieg Larsson and Salander getting even: what I found interesting about that depiction was that she initially gets even on her own terms in a private encounter with her rapist, but that eventual justice is served in a court of law / in the public sphere. So even though the system is shown failing Salander all of her life, forcing her to get even on her own, Larsson does bring things back to a legal setting in the end. The connection of Nazism / neo-Nazism with misogyny was absolutely deliberate on Larsson’s part in my view: hate shapes much of right-wing ideology and it’s plausible to see that hatred spilling over against women (the original title of the book was ‘Men who Hate Women’). Much of Larsson’s day job was also concerned with countering the emergence of a new far-right in Sweden.

      • I agree that the issue of private versus public vengeance is an interesting one. (Having read the books, I actually closed my eyes in advance of the rape scene in the Swedish Larsson film – haven’t seen the English version – and after a quick look at the tattoo sequence did the same thing. I don’t entirely disagree with her response, but I didn’t want it engraved on my eyelids, so to speak.) I was actually glad to see the whole thing resolved in court in book three, because I’m uncomfortable with reinforcing the idea that the state is completely hopeless and that vigilante justice is the only answer. And yes, as you mentioned above, the end of the first Bruno novel has a similar problem. I think I would have been more sympathetic if the murder hadn’t been so brutal, which is perhaps an unintentional consequence of violence – that other plot aspects suffer! (Given family history relating to WW2, I’m as sympathetic an audience for that sort of thing as you’re likely to get, and if you can’t convince me that vengeance is OK, then I can see why others would choose not to read further.)

      • Thanks, Lauren. Yes, I have the same kind of reservations about the enactment of vigilante justice, particularly when it’s connected to larger historical events, as in the case of Bruno, Chief of Police. Authors have to be so careful about the politics of history and memory when writing that kind of narrative, and it’s easy to get it wrong. I was surprised at Martin Walker taking up this kind of lazy position, because he has tremendous experience as a journalist, and I would have expected better. There seemed to be no sense of awareness that the lack of formal justice at the end of the book mirrored the evasions of legal justice in relation to the Nazi/Vichy period post-1945. Rather a rich irony given the subject-matter.

  16. Fascinating read and very thoughtful discussion.

    This is a topic that I think about and talk about with other writers a lot. When I see some of the slasher/serial/rapist/torture porn that I share shelf space with I take a deep breath and remind myself that the crime fiction genre is vast and the approaches to it varied and that there’s room for many in the big church.

    That being said, there are books and writers that I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.
    A back of book blurb that breathlessly promises a titillating tale of torture, rape and abuse is in fact signalling to me that it’s not my kind of book, not my kind of story and not my kind of writer. I don’t have to read it and I won’t.

    But what I do find difficult – as a crime writer – is then being asked to “answer for” these books.
    For example; you set out with your book on the promotion trail – interviews if you’re lucky, spots on festival panels if you’re really lucky – and it all begins. How often do festivals name their crime panels – especially if it’s an all-female panel – something fatuous like “Deadlier of the Species?” And how often are the questions along the lines of “So, what’s your favourite way of killing someone?”

    Violence is only of interest – to me as a reader and as a writer – for what it tells me about the people, the place and the politics of the event. I actually know violence is awful. Hundreds of words spelling that out to me in loving detail are unnecessary.

    When I committed to writing in the crime genre I was struck by the lack of grief in so much of crime fiction. There was a death but it was just there to kick off the plot. As an ex-police officer I already had ethical qualms about writing about murder and violence as “entertainment” and it seemed to me that not to acknowledge the lasting damage of violence and violent death was pretty reprehensible.

    Then I discovered writers such as Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Sara Paretsky, Ian Rankin, George Pelecanos and Walter Mosley and more recently Attica Locke, Malla Nunn and Angela Savage, and I realised that it was possible to use this genre to write about important things not just grisly things.

    This is a difficult topic to talk about. In small writing communities authors don’t particularly want to bag one another and readers don’t want to be tagged as censorious, but if we want to challenge the prevailing view that “crime fiction is getting more explicit and violent” then perhaps there is a need to.


    PS: I’m delighted to see Detective Nhu “Ned” Kelly make it onto the list as a strong woman! She is – but a human one as well. She makes poor choices, behaves impulsively, gets sick at the sight of dead bodies and throws up sometimes. She’s strong not superwoman.

    • Thanks very much indeed, Pam, for joining the discussion and giving us your point of view as a writer. I agree with a great deal of you say in relation to violence, and your point about the importance of acknowledging the impact of violent crime through the themes of grief and loss. I remember being very struck in one of George Pelecanos’ novels, Hard Revolution, by his critique of the idea of ‘solving’ a murder – an idea that is of course central to the crime genre and to reader expectations when they pick up some crime. After the murder of a young black man, he has one of the characters muse: ‘What they needed now was the satisfaction and peace of knowing who killed their son. The false pat on the shoulder, telling them that the murder had been “solved”. Of course, no murder ever got solved, not unless you could bring back the dead’. That made me think a great deal.

      I’m absolutely convinced that the genre can be used to write about ‘important things not just grisly things’, as you say. The genre addresses so many of *the* big themes: death, criminality, justice, society’s reactions to all three. The very best of crime fiction has a huge amount to tell us, and – big bonus – is read by a vast amount of people.

      I’m looking forward to meeting Nhu Kelly properly soon 🙂 She was recommended by Bernadette over at the ‘Reactions to Reading’ blog.

      • Oh yes!!!!! I think I was on the 4th or 5th draft of the book when I came across an interview with Pelecanos where he said:

        “There is no solving murders, you know. Not unless the dead are going to rise up out of the earth. Once somebody is killed, it’s forever for their loved ones and their family and the community ”

        I read that and I knew I’d found the epigraph for my book.

        Something I find in a lot of the uber-violent books is a reliance on rather simplistic solutions – bad guy is bad so shoot him. I stopped reading Cornwell after the first couple because they were, to me, far too focused on the intimate details of violence and provided solutions that depended on the use of increasingly large guns.

        I’m partial to somewhat less satisfying conclusions. Ian Rankin said it well when he talked about crime fiction needing a “sense of the incomplete, of life’s messy complexity. The reader should go to crime fiction to learn about the real world, not to retreat from it with comfortable reassurances and assumptions.” Some status quos, once disturbed, do not deserve to be restored. The disruption is where the interest lies.

        You’ve got a big reading list ahead of you! Bernadette is a great advocate for us crime writers in Oz. Where would we be without a vibrant blogging community?

      • I think both Pelecanos and Rankin are spot on. Like you, I like writers who aren’t afraid to disrupt the conventions of the genre; it can be extremely effective *not* giving readers the neat conclusion that they might expect at the end of the novel. I sometimes get frustrated by authors who look like they’re going to do something groundbreaking, but then revert back to the standard formula at the end, often to protect the main character in a series (e.g. Tim Robb Smith’s Child 44)- though I can appreciate that it’s tricky for authors to get the balance right, when it comes making sensible commercial decisions and giving the majority of readers what they want! I find that standalones are often more effective in this respect: authors are let off the leash and can be a little more daring in providing an edgy ending that leaves questions open for readers to mull on long after they’ve finished the book (such as Robert Harris’ Fatherland).

        I love Bernadette’s blog, not least because it brings novels to my attention that I might not otherwise find. And I love the fact that the internet and blogging allows us to so easily forge links across the world. The positive side of globalisation!

  17. Woke up thinking of more this morning…

    Alex Walters: author of the Marie Donovan ‘deep-cover’ undercover cop series, the second of which has just been published.

    For clarity as she delivers across three strong female strands, Cath Staincliffe: author of the Sal Kilkenny private eye stories and the Scott & Bailey books; creator and scriptwriter of Blue Murder, ITV’s detective drama series featuring DCI Janine Lewis.

  18. Craig Russell’s Hamburg novels are quite interesting for other reasons – I can’t name many (any?) other crime novels set in modern Germany (by Germans or not) which have a female Jewish police detective in the main team. (I didn’t find the explanation of her motives terribly convincing, but it’s an interesting idea.) But the cumulative impact of certain authorial plot decisions (am being vague here) was unpleasant. I also think it’s interesting that the two which have currently been filmed for German TV were, if anything, *less* horrible than the books!

    One other point – it’s a pretty standard trope in crime novels and on TV that a detective goes off on their own, meets the baddie, and something horrible happens. Except that for male characters it seems that “horrible” equates to a bash on the head, being tied to a radiator or threatened with a gun. Female characters – well, the options are gorier. (Helene Tursten made a decision of this sort in a fairly recent book that isn’t yet available in English that I seriously, seriously disagreed with, particularly given the way that the victim had been set up as unlikeably female.) Yet realistically, if a character is on the run and trying to escape the cops, why on earth would they waste time with sadistic abuse when they could be on a plane to Brazil? This sort of thing often comes across as excessive.

    Oh, and finally, since Robert Wilson came up earlier in the conversation. A Small Death in Lisbon is one of my favourite crime novels of all time, but I also find some of his scenes pretty borderline (for all sorts of reasons, but nasty violence against women is one of them.) However, what his novels do have as well is a fair bit of consensual sex between characters who are pretty fond of each other. Not that the two cancel each other out, but I get even more annoyed by over-the-top sexual violence when that’s the only form of sexuality that is ever mentioned in a book. I think this can normalise offensive attitudes to rape in a way I find rather uncomfortable. (I think Val McDermid is guilty of this at times.)

    OK, I think I’ve monopolised this thread enough!

    • Oh, I’m definitely going to have to check out Russell’s Hamburg series now, as part of my academic work involves looking at how Germany and German history are represented in crime. And the books have obviously gone down pretty well in Germany, as they’ve been adapted for TV. Thanks for the lead.

      That’s an excellent point about the ‘detective gets beaten up’ trope and what it might mean for male and female detectives. I hadn’t looked at it that way before, but I think that you’re right.

      Why bother with sadistic abuse when they could be on a plane to Brazil? Depressingly, I think this is where realism bows out and commercial pressures kick in. Writers are catering to a real or perceived demand for this kind of stuff: sex sells; sadism sells. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that there is pressure placed on writers by publishers to deliver a certain amount per novel.

      If you don’t mind my asking, are you based in Europe? Just ignore if you’d rather not say 🙂 Thanks again for your comments and do come back again soon…

      • As my television viewing of choice has probably revealed already, I’m indeed in Germany 🙂 Given that the only German-language programmes on TV in Oz when I was growing up were Derrick and Inspector Rex, my interest in crime fiction was almost inevitable…(it also did strange things for my vocabulary!)

        Regarding your research, there’s an Arne Dahl novel on that topic as well, so I’ll dig out the title and post it at some point.

      • Aha! I was wondering… But hang on a minute – German-language crime series were shown in Australia?! Never knew that…

        I’d be very interested to find out which Dahl novel you mean. There’s only one out in English at the moment, but I read German, so could get hold of the German translation. Herzlichen Dank im voraus 🙂

  19. I’m not sure what the standard definition of a ‘strong woman in crime’ would be

    That is a toughie and I don’t want to derail the discussion more than I have already so this will be my last comment on the matter. Thanks Mrs P!

  20. I didn’t mean to single out women writers at all about violence. As I mentioned above, my first awareness of brutality against women in crime fiction came with the Mickey Spillane/Mike Hammer books decades ago, which I avoided. Since then I’ve avoided many male writers because of this anti-woman violence. Only recently did I have to stop reading certain women writers because of this factor, but it’s only been a handful, while I still avoid several male writers for this reason.

    I do realize that Stieg Larsson portrayed a nazi as the worst misogynist, and applaud him for doing so, an an anti-fascist activist and researcher.

    Also — and this has generated so much blog discussion all over — it was the lack of recourse and callousness by the Swedish government, and seemingly the absence of women’s or victims’ rights advocates or organizations that led Lizbeth Salander to defend herself and her mother while a child, and then to avenge herself later on. There was no one to help her except her first guardian, and then Blomqvist and then other women!

    Volume three of the trilogy shows not only that Salander got justice through the courts, but seven competent, smart women (at least; I had counted seven) helped her, especially Annika Gianni, her attorney and Blomqvist’s sister. The system had changed somewhat and women had also made leaps professionally to be in positions to aid Salander, and society’s consciousness had changed somewhat where victims were supported.

    I meant to also say that another thing about male writers that even today, with some who would considered themselves conscious of women’s roles that often women are still either objectified or idealized, not shown as equals or real people. Would a male author write a character such as Ruth Galloway, unglamorous, down-to-earth, middle-aged, a single parent unconcerned about appearances, devoted to her career and daughter?

    And I still don’t get the violence. Sex sells. I get it. I don’t mind it in books if it’s not tied to violence. But sadism sells? Why is this? What hostility to women still remains in society? What is this about? Who’s buying these books? Why do publishers promote it? This is scary.

    • Thanks, Kathy. I realise you weren’t singling out women writers – I just thought it was interesting that an author you mentioned as depicting a lot of violence (Slaughter) was also on the ‘strong woman’ list.

      Thanks too for the marvellous analysis of the Larsson trilogy – very illuminating indeed.

      I don’t think I’ve read enough to comment on whether male crime writers are capable of really good characterisation when it comes to a female detective. I’ll be on the look out from now on though…

      I’m afraid I don’t know why sadism or violence against women sells. No idea. It worries me deeply.

  21. Fascinating post & discussion. I was thrilled to find Jayne Keeney in such esteemed company as a strong woman of crime fiction – albeit one who, like Nhu ‘Ned’ Kelly makes poor choices at times and considers her ‘talents’ to be drinking, smoking and inappropriate relationships.

    On the subject of violence, I agree with Pam’s take. The kind of books I aim to write are the same as those I like to read: books that contextualise violence, accounting for violent actions as more than individual pathology, looking at the consequences of violence for individuals and communities.

    For the first time, female victims outnumber males in the next book in the Jayne Keeney series, but not one death is described in detail. It simply didn’t seem necessary.

    Will be interesting to see if it sells 😉

    • Hello Angela – thanks very much for joining the discussion. It’s great to be getting all these writerly thoughts!

      I think it’s very much OK for our ‘strong women’ to be depicted as human and less than perfect. That’s what makes them real and interesting to us as readers. The key point is that they’ll keep picking themselves up to have another go.

      I very much like what you say about your approach to writing about violence. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the book sells and you get lots of positive feedback.

  22. An example of a male writer who does an excellent job with a woman protagonist is Icelandic Arnaldur Indridason’s depiction of Elinborg in Outrage. I was impressed.

    Also, want to give a cheer to Jayne Keeney in Angela Savage’s books. She is strong, smart, independent, feisty — and a risk taker. She has foibles but she’s brave and gets her work done, with a bit of drama and a lot of wit. Very enjoyable books.

    And, in my opinion, there is not gratuitous violence.

    • Thanks, Kathy. I totally agree with you about Indridason and Elinborg, and very much liked that she was given the leading role in Outrage. Am keen to meet Jayne Keeney properly now was well! Sounds like my kind of woman.

  23. Mrs P, firstly a thanks from this author [TJ Cooke] for including Jill Shadow in your Strong Women In Crime Fiction list. She would be chuffed I’m sure to sit neatly between Lisbeth Salander and Vera Stanhope.

    I expect Jill is the newest inclusion, as ‘Kiss and Tell’ tells the first of hopefully her many adventures.Perhaps a little background to the character and my own take on the issue of the depiction of violence against women in crime fiction might enlighten.

    Starting with the latter – although my recent background has been in television script writing, I had previously spent some time working in a law firm. The issue of violence against women resonates from those times.

    It was in the era when the police would often fail to properly investigate what they often flippantly referred to as ‘domestics’. Violence against women, particularly in the home, wasn’t considered to be a serious matter by the authorities. In response some of the more progressive lawyers took a stance where they would only represent women in domestic violence proceedings. The resulting injunctions, mostly of the non-molestation and curfew variety, with a power of arrest attached, helped to bring the matter more into the public spotlight. On occasions the police were shamed into taking criminal action against violent offenders, and with the help of many campaigning groups the authorities were eventually forced to deal with the issue more seriously, and professionally.

    The other issue which divided many in the criminal law field was that of rape. This is another area where the issue of violence against women has all too literally been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The way both victims and witnesses were treated was often as disgraceful as it was woeful. I’m told there have been vast improvements, but it is still somewhat alarming to hear of the tales told by many victims of abuse arising from recent high profile enquiries. Many women still claim that are not believed in the first instance. What chance have they got of bringing the matter to court when the authority which is supposed to support the prosecution doubts their story from the start?

    And what happens when victims do have their day in court? In many a ‘contested consent’ rape case there is exhaustive and often perverse cross examination of the victim, usually conducted by defence counsel at the behest of the accused. I’m not suggesting there is an easy answer to this, at least as long as our adversarial system of justice lives on, but I feel there is still a long way to go to rectify loitering inequality.

    So, how did this affect me a writer? Many a lawyer has had to make a decision about what sort of case they are prepared to take on, but what confronted me years later, as a budding crime fiction author, was something equally uncomfortable.

    I had read many crime novels where a notably savage antagonist commits heinous acts of violence against women. The template often then maps out the investigative protagonists journey in rounding up the case, often referring to the violence in graphic detail. It was a template that may have seemed alluring, not least because it had proved so successful for others. However, it was one I was keen to avoid using.
    I have read these comments with interest, particularly from those who wonder if some readers are fuelled by a prurient mind. It’s clearly causing some discomfort.

    I cannot pretend that this was my own motive in avoiding these stories as a writer. I simply wanted to write other things. It may well be though that having experienced a world where women were victims I didn’t want to create such a world again, albeit as fiction.

    Despite the concerns, writers must be free to write about whatever they want. As readers we are free to make the choice as to what to read. We all know that some excellent crime fiction writers have written some equally excellent serial killer tales. This is their forte and they do it with amazing skill and dexterity. But other perhaps have jumped on the bandwagon… just as the ‘copy cat’ killer features in some, maybe it’s the ‘copy cat’ writer who’s at the source of the discomfort…?

    In any event, with the introduction of Jill Shadow I tried to approach the genre from a fresh angle. I had always been interested in the investigations which failed, which didn’t get their man, which were tainted with prejudice and corruption… and interested too in what happens when the guilty remain at large and unpunished, or when the innocent are unfairly convicted? Jill is there to take these cases on, particularly ones the police and other authorities would rather leave well alone…

    I had also seen at first hand the prejudice some professional women experienced in pursuing their careers, notably women from poor or ethnic backgrounds. The journey some faced, and conquered in these circumstances was also an inspiration for the Jill Shadow character.

    So, not only did I want to avoid the serial killer/graphic violence against women stories, but I felt I needed a strong female lead to take crime fiction narrative to places it rarely ventures.

    Jill Shadow is not your archetypal lawyer, far from it. She fought her way to the top via a most challenging route. Jill worked her way up from secretary, to clerk, to legal executive and to eventually becoming a fully qualified lawyer. She was an eighteen year old single mum from a London council estate when she joined a law firm as a secretary. Her ex [the baby’s father] had just left her courtesy of a long prison sentence for drug trafficking, a venture he had kept concealed from her. In turn, Jill kept the truth concealed from the firm’s partners. Not only that, but as her daughter got older she kept the truth concealed from her too, making up a story to fit the facts of her father’s sudden disappearance.

    In ‘Kiss and Tell’ Jill finds herself facing her past, as well as unwittingly being ensnared in what has colloquially become known as ‘the drug debate’… the issue of decriminalisation and classification of controlled drugs. She discovers that some powerful people are lobbying behind the scenes… It’s one of many issues Jill will tackle head on.

    Though not obvious at first, we are all suffering as a result of ill thought out legislation. This is the one of the issues of the day, one yet to be properly addressed. Some years back Jill would have been at the vanguard of change in battling for the rights of women in domestic violence proceedings, or in changing the procedure in rape trials…. but not because she has an overtly political background. She is simply there for the underdog, for the man or woman in the street… because essentially that’s who she is.

    • Thanks very much, Tim. It’s particularly interesting to get the take of a writer who has had a professional insight into the ways that women have been (poorly) treated by the law and the judicial system. As you say, the adversarial model we have is not really suited to these types of cases. I know from my own experiences of seeing a court in action that it’s very much about the defence and proscution building a convincing narrative for the jury. Sometimes the truth of the case (and certainly its complexities) can get lost in that process. And you’re quite right that the cross-examination of the women bringing the case can be very harrowing indeed.

  24. Pingback: Oh, and She Never Gives Out and She Never Gives In* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…

  25. Thank you, Mrs. P, for linking to my post. That’s awfully kind of you. This discussion is so rich and interesting isn’t it? I’ve learned quite a lot by following it.

  26. More interesting comments. As a specific example of a feisty, smart, independent, brave woman protagonist who has foibles, I’d point to Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski. She has fit this bill ever since book I. This is why I was drawn to her character many years ago, and haven’t missed a book.

    I’m so glad to see this list as there are so many more characters to read about, although I’d deleting those series which I find way too gory, brutal and violent. Not my cup of tea.

    And I’ll agree that still, even with legal advances, domestic violence, rape and murder of women are not treated well over here. Some horrific incidents have occurred with violent spouses who were not tried and jailed; then later on another women and/or children were killed by the culprit. Still a long way to go. Also, there are class and racial differences in how suspects are treated; this is still true.

    Anyway, crime fiction rarely disappoints. On to more strong women protagonists fighting the good fights!

  27. Pingback: Mrs Peabody’s 2012 review | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

  28. Pingback: My dip into the world of crime fiction… | Kat's Book Shelf

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