Women In Detective Fiction: A Wider Look


– Post by Molly

At the beginning of March, I contacted many of my favorite women in crime fiction. In honor of Women’s History Month, I asked for a few thoughts on the history of women in crime fiction, the future of crime fiction for female authors, or women’s representation in detective fiction. I also asked for some recommendations to pass on – look out for a thorough list of all the recommendations I got in the next week. I received wonderful responses from Lori Rader-Day, Megan Abbott, Meg Gardiner, Ausma Zehanat Khan, and Jamie Mason (read her response here), each highlighting the long history of women in crime fiction, the prominent place in the genre of many female authors today, and passing along some great recommendations.

Lori Rader-Day’s debut novel, The Black Hour, came out last year, and she’ll be releasing her next one, Little Pretty Things, in July. Megan Abbott’s most recent work is The Fever, and her books run the gamut from historical plots set in the golden age of noir to, more recently, plots focusing on the dangerous lives of adolescent girls. Meg Gardiner writes breakneck cyber-thrillers starring extremely capable women. Her latest is Phantom Instinct. Ausma Zehanat Khan recently published her first novel, The Unquiet Dead, to much acclaim.

There is a vast and diverse body of work written by women and shelved in the mystery section – almost an overwhelming amount, when attempting an analysis, especially one written for a blog. Lori Rader-Day, in her response, brought up how “one of the greatest things about crime fiction is how many brilliant women write it. There’s such a long tradition of fantastic women crime writers that I could read for the rest of my life (and that’s my plan) and never catch up.” Meg Gardiner responded, “Women have been the backbone and animating force in crime fiction since the beginning. From Agatha Christie to Patricia Highsmith to Gillian Flynn, women have defined, deepened, and blown up the genre.” Ausma Zehanat Khan, in her reply, mentioned that “most of the mysteries I read are written by women, and I also think women are very well represented as equals in detective fiction, although possibly not as much in higher ranks, which is likely more a reflection of the real world.” I think that we can all agree – women in crime fiction are here to stay.

Do women write crime fiction differently than men? Ausma Zehanat Khan responded, “Generally speaking, I think women write better detective novels with deeper characterizations and greater empathy, although I’m never really sure that you can generalize.” Women are certainly more likely than their male counterparts to have strong female protagonists, yet many male authors do write powerful and intriguing female protagonists. Lori Rader-Day, after writing “I look forward to anything new by Tana French, Catriona McPherson, Denise Mina, Clare O’Donohue, Sara Gran, and Gillian Flynn,” made sure to mention that “I read male authors, too, of course, and I can be enchanted by a male author who captures a female protagonist well, like Alan Bradley and James Ziskin.”Perhaps, in analyzing fiction, we’ve moved beyond wide generalizations based on gender, and this is, in my opinion, a very good thing.

While women may be well-represented in the ranks of detective novelists today,  not many classic female detective novelists (with certain exceptions, such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Parker and the great Patricia Highsmith) have stayed in circulation. The history of women in crime fiction is long, yet consistently undervalued. Many of those women who helped to originate, develop, and explode the genre of detective fiction are no longer in print. Those who have remained in print are generally from the British tradition of detective fiction, rather than American noir. Others who helped to originate the detective genre have found a home in classics, their history as genre fiction subordinated to their position as literature.

Meg Gardiner, when asked about the history of women in crime fiction, responded: “Hell, go back to the earliest days of great fiction—who wrote the original novel of tension, terror, and adventure? Mary Shelley. She gets credit for sparking science fiction and the horror genre. She’s also a founding force for suspense fiction!” I had contemplated Mary Shelley as an originator of horror, but had never thought of her before as paving the way for thrillers. I’m adding a belated New Year’s resolution to my already long list: I resolve to remember that the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is a fine and porous line, and like any definition, fraught with ambiguity.

However, the prognosis for our ability to appreciate classic female detective novelists is good. Megan Abbott, in her discussion of the history of women detective novelists, brought to the fore “the Library of America’s upcoming volumes devoted to female crime writers from the golden age of noir. These volumes will be edited by Sarah Weinman and will finally push back into print some of the true masterpieces of the genre.” (The Library of America’s collection of Women Crime Writers comes out this September. Preorder now.)  Abbott points out in particular the inclusion of “Dorothy B. Hughes’s In A Lonely Place, Vera Caspary’s Laura, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall and Margaret Millar’s Beast In View. These were books that were wildly successful in their day, and had a huge impact on crime fiction to come, but have been unjustly forgotten. It’s a thrilling development.” That the Library of America has chosen to bring back into print these volumes is a statement of confidence in the canonical status of each writer included in the collection. People have always read the novels of women crime novelists writing at the time, but now is our chance to explore the lesser known classics that paved the way for women writing in crime fiction today.

While many of us fans of crime fiction by women did not grow up reading the classics of female noir, we did benefit from the splintering and diversification of the detective genre in the 1970s and 80s. Not only did the feminist movement spur a vast array of more widely politicized detective fiction by women – this time period also saw a diversification of voices in regards to ethnicity, class, and sexuality. Many of these authors have stayed in print and are still read widely. There is a strong continuum of forward momentum from this point onwards, and women are now near-equally represented in the genre.

The forward momentum of increasing diversity, however, has slowed in the intervening decades, and the representation of authors of color, of any gender, has fallen woefully behind. Ausma Zehanet Khan responded, “What I’d like to see more of in detective fiction is more diversity – more women and men of color in leading roles, and also as writers of detective fiction. I love learning about different perspectives on the world, on crime, and culture. For example, I loved Attica Locke’s ‘The Cutting Season.’ And although I’m starting to see secondary characters who are from diverse backgrounds, there is still a long way to go.”

As a female reader of detective fiction by both male and female writers, I believe the biggest gendered problem in detective fiction right now is not a lack of female authors, but an intensification of violence against women by some male and some female writers.  The detective genre is certainly a violent one, to its core, and gendered violence is a world-wide issue that cannot be simply subsumed to a socialist realism narrative – when I read a detective novel, I want a nutshell version of a realistic society, and that includes violent, gendered crimes. However, I have lost track of the number of detective novels I have read that not only hideously torture and murder women in uncommon-in-real-life ways, but deny those women any kind of voice, spending more time describing a dead body than a vibrant soul, lost to the world and yet deserving of remembrance. Women are not just corpses – they are characters.

The more women writing crime fiction, the less we will see female characters treated as disposable playthings and the more we will see women enacting their own stories and determining their own agency. There are also plenty of male authors out there bucking the trend – writing strong female characters and taking a responsible attitude towards the representation of violence against women. I’d say the future of women in crime fiction – as authors and as characters – is looking pretty darn good.

Molly’s Top 10 of the Year So Far

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The year is far from over, but these days, a good list is appropriate for any time. The first chunk of this year has been a whirlwind. It’s been a combination of great authors in the store and great books on our nightstands, and we can’t wait for what the rest of 2014 will bring. For now, Molly provides some of her favorites:

Molly’s Top 10 OF The Year So Far

 

1. In The Morning I’ll Be Gone – Adrian McKinty
McKinty proves that the third in a trilogy can be just as good as the
first and second in his explosive conclusion to Detective Sean Duffy’s
trials and tribulations amidst the Northern Irish Troubles.

2. Laidlaw – William McIlvanney [reissue]
Europa editions proves their commitment to international crime
classics once again by reissuing William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, the
first Scottish noir.

3. The Fever – Megan Abbott
Abbott’s latest exploration of the dangerous world of adolescent girls
is stunning in its complex attitudes and twisting plot points.

4. Borderline – Lawrence Block [reissue]
Hard Case crime has released this little-known relic of the porn
paperback industry, and when you pick it up, prepare yourself for some
wild 1950s hipster eroticism on the Texas-Mexico border.

5. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair – Joel Dicker
Joel Dicker has written an intricate mystery in the guise of a love
story, and his exploration of murder in Maine exists on several
levels.

6. The Black Hour – Lori Rader-Day
Lori Rader-Day tackles issues of school shootings, suicide, and
vicious academic competition to create a thoroughly enjoyable and
highly topical debut novel.

7. Wolf – Mo Hayder
In Mo Hayder’s latest Jack Caffery novel, Wolf, a family is trapped in
a country mansion by psychopaths and Caffery must race to secure their
release in order to follow his own quest to find his brother.

8.  Federales – Christopher Irvin
Christopher Irvin plunges into the dark world of drug cartels in
Mexico in this violent and heart-wrenching novella.

9. Prayer – Phillip Kerr
Phillip Kerr heads to modern day Houston to write a stylish thriller
about the horrors of religious zealotry and the power of belief.

10. Phantom Instinct – Meg Gardiner
Meg Gardiner writes a new tough heroine for her stand-alone
techno-thriller Phantom Instinct, and brings the suspense and the
satisfaction.

MysteryPeople Q&A With Meg Gardiner

meg gardiner
~interviewed by Molly

This coming Saturday, June 28th at 4PM, MysteryPeople will be welcoming Meg Gardiner to the podium to discuss and read from her latest, Phantom Instinct. Molly already reviewed Phantom Instinct, but was able to catch up with Meg before Saturday’s event to get the full scoop.

Molly O.: Your two main characters, Harper and Aiden, are hobbled in their pursuit of justice by Harper’s past as a juvenile delinquent and Aiden’s traumatic brain injury, which leads him to see enemies everywhere. Their flaws drew me in to their characters much more so than any of their more heroic attributes, especially in the case of Aiden. What was your inspiration for creating such flawed characters?

Meg Gardiner: I want to write about characters who have their backs up against the wall. For a novel to be suspenseful, the characters must be vulnerable to real danger. If they have no flaws, no limitations, then they face no real challenge. That story’s boring.

Even Superman has Kryptonite.

The only real way to find out what characters are made of is to crack their world in half. Then you learn whether they can fight their way clear of the debris, rescue people who need help, and rebuild from the wreckage.

Harper Flynn was forced into crime in her teens. To escape, she broke the world she grew up in. It was a dirty getaway. She has always feared that it would come back to haunt her. Now it has.

Aiden Garrison wants justice for the victims of the shootout where he suffered the traumatic brain injury. But that injury has smashed his life as a lawman to pieces. He’s searching for some new way to soldier through.

Phantom Instinct is about how Aiden and Harper try to fight past all these flaws to stop a killer before he gets to them and the people they love.

MO: Where did you get the idea for Aiden’s condition in particular?

MG: Fregoli Syndrome is a kind of face blindness. It causes the mistaken belief that the person you’re looking at is actually someone else in disguise. I stumbled across it while reading, and thought: there’s trouble for a cop. A delusional misidentification disorder.

Aiden can no longer trust his own eyes. And the department no longer trusts him with a gun—after all, at unpredictable moments he becomes convinced that a friend, colleague, or the kid bagging his groceries is actually a hired killer in disguise.

MO: Much of the dramatic tension in Phantom Instinct stems from Harper’s difficulty in convincing anyone that she and her loved ones are in danger, and the suspense is doubled by Harper’s struggle to deal with her life in danger but also to convince others that her life actually is in danger. Do you think that this atmosphere of paranoia and disbelief is integral to the thriller?

MG: Some thrillers work brilliantly when you know exactly who’s good and who’s bad. But this book is about trust. Harper and Aiden are drawn toward each other, but with everything they learn, the less they trust each other. They need to work together, but every secret that’s exposed sends them further off kilter. They have to decide: who should you trust? When do you take a leap of faith? Their lives depend on jumping the right way.

MO: Was Harper’s incredible resourcefulness a motivation in denying her help early on?

MG: Never make it easy. Trouble builds character. That’s Thriller Writing 101.

MO: I particularly enjoyed the combined use of cyber-crime and good, old-fashioned thievery by the modern criminals of Phantom Instinct. Many thrillers focus on technology based crime as entirely separate from thuggery, but in Phantom Instinct, one strategy leads naturally to the other. Do you think that these tactics are indicative of the future of criminality, or do they belong more in a thriller than in reality?

MG: Law enforcement agencies including the FBI will tell you that cyber crime is a growth industry. Street gangs and organized crime have realized they can make serious cash without butchering the competition.

But at some point, thugs gonna thug. As they do in the book.

MO: How much of these tactics did you see in your law career?

MG: My practice was in commercial litigation, not criminal law. The only crooks I wrestle with are the ones I invent.

MO: You’ve written series and stand-alones, and are adept at each. What do you get from writing a stand-alone that you can’t get from a series, and vice versa?

MG: With a series you can explore the characters’ world, build it up, blow it up, and put it back together again. Over the course of multiple books, you have the scope to dive deep into the characters lives, and to let them develop. And some characters need more than one adventure.

But some stories demand to be told that don’t fit with a series. That’s when I write a stand-alone. A novel about an ex-thief who teams up with an injured cop to catch a killer before he kills again… that story needs to have the ex-thief and the cop at its heart. So Harper Flynn and Aiden Garrison are the heroine and hero in Phantom Instinct.

MO: I really enjoyed your strong sense of place when writing about Los Angeles and surrounding Southern California. You lived in the UK for quite some time. Was it the change of place that made you want to revisit your home and explore the territory for darker themes?

MG: I started writing about California when I moved to the UK. I loved England, but missed Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. I also came to realize that the British saw Southern California as wildly exotic. I was only too happy to write about a place I adored, and which fascinated my new friends.

MO: What attracts you to writing about Southern California in particular?

MG: There’s a dream version of California: wide open cities, seas, deserts, huge skies, hope and promise and endless possibility. Of course, pain and darkness inevitably churn beneath the bright sun of paradise. The juxtaposition makes California a fertile ground for novels—thrillers, noir, pulp, you name it. It always has. In my novels, empty souls want to drag down those who try to make a place in the sunlit world.

I love California. Now I’m living in Austin, and still love writing about the state where I grew up.


Meg Gardiner will read from & sign her new novel here at BookPeople on Saturday, June 28th at 4PM! You can pre-order signed copies of Phantom Instinct now via bookpeople.com, or find a copy on our shelves in-store. Also, check out Molly’s review of Phantom Instinct on the MysteryPeople blog!

MysteryPeople Review: PHANTOM INSTINCT by Meg Gardiner

phantom instinct
Phantom Instinct
by Meg Gardiner
~reviewed by Molly

Meg Gardiner has been known for some time for her strong female protagonists and tense, electrifying plots. She won the Edgar Award in 2009 for her novel China Lake and has continued to produce new, award-winning material almost as fast as her growing fan base can read them (almost). Although Gardiner writes from England, her latest thriller, like many of her others, is set in LA and the surrounding desert. Phantom Instinct slowly ratchets up the suspense, as a young ex-thief and a brain-damaged policeman play cat-and-mouse with a psychopath. Their task is complicated by the system’s refusal to believe such a killer exists. Throughout, Gardiner mixes good, old-fashioned criminality with a fair share of techno-crime, lending freshness and modernity to the thriller genre while still creating compelling human stories.

As Phantom Instinct opens, Harper Flynn, Meg Gardiner’s latest heroine mourns her boyfriend, shot dead in a nightclub attack. On the anniversary of his death, she notices herself being followed by a mysterious figure. She immediately suspects him of being a third gunman from the nightclub; never apprehended at the scene and believed by the FBI to never have existed at all.

Harper has only one ally on the side of the law. Detective Aiden Garrison believes her to be telling the truth. Unfortunately for Harper, Aiden suffers from a traumatic brain injury sustained during the nightclub fire. He now sees false enemies everywhere, obscuring his ability to spot a real threat and occasionally turning him into one.

Harper and Aiden must work together to protect Harper from her unknown stalker and convince the law that anyone is endangering her at all. In the meantime, past revelations about Harper and her relationship with the criminal underworld place her increasingly in danger and her story increasingly in doubt.

In her characterization of Harper and Aiden, Gardiner has created realistic depictions of flawed and vulnerable individuals. In their struggle to resolve enduring questions from the nightclub fire that killed Harper’s boyfriend, they also must resolve their own issues and find new compromise with old and painful memories. Their external struggle mirrors the internal as the two descend further into Harper’s past in order to protect her right to a future. Gardiner makes good use of her native Southern California city glitz and desert starkness to echo Harper and Aiden’s journey. Momentum builds as someone Harper cares for dearly is endangered, and the plot rushes forward at breakneck pace towards Phantom Instinct’s strong and satisfying conclusion.


Meg Gardiner will read from & sign her new novel here at BookPeople on Saturday, June 28th at 4PM! You can pre-order signed copies of Phantom Instinct now via bookpeople.com, or find a copy on our shelves in-store.