A fascinating discussion at Mrs. Peabody Investigates (A blog you really need to follow if you’re a fan of crime fiction) has got me thinking about two trends in crime fiction. One of them (and this is what was discussed at the blog) is the increase in depictions of extreme violence against women in some crime fiction. I’ll get back to that shortly. The other trend is the increase we’ve seen in the last few decades of strong female protagonists. I’m most emphatically not saying the two trends are necessarily related. I find that duality really interesting though.
Of course, there’ve been crime novels that depict violence against women for quite some time. For instance, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, published in 1952, is the story of Central City, Texas deputy sheriff Lou Ford. Everyone thinks of Ford as a nice, competent lawman, even if he isn’t exactly an exciting person. Then a local prostitute Joyce Lakeland is brutally beaten. Then there’s a murder. As the investigation into these events goes along, it becomes increasingly clear that Ford is not the person everyone thinks he is. In fact, he’s battling with something he calls ‘the sickness.’ While this novel is not as extreme as some of today’s novels, it certainly is uncompromising.
So is Mickey Spillane’s treatment of women. In several of his Mike Hammer novels, women are the victims of all sorts of abuse. And in this ‘hardboiled’ category of noir crime fiction, that violence is not glossed over, even in Spillane’s earlier work. There are other examples too, especially among other ‘hardboiled’ novels, of plots that involve violence against women.
But what seems to be a much more common theme among today’s crime fiction novels is the deliberate targeting of female victims. I won’t – promise – list for you all of the novels in which there’s a series of brutal torture/murders of women. But if you pay attention to crime fiction, you know exactly what I mean. Those who’ve been involved in the discussion on Mrs. Peabody’s blog are right that there are many more of these kinds of plots than there used to be. And in many of those novels, the violence isn’t just extreme; it’s described in excruciating (and I mean that word) detail. I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know what the reason is that books like this sell as well as they do. But if they didn’t sell my guess is that fewer of them would be written.
What’s interesting (or maybe it’s just my opinion) is that at the same time as we have this increase in the number of books that feature extreme violence against women, we also have the development of several very strong female protagonists. Again, there’ve been strong female characters in crime fiction for a long time. Dorothy Sayers’ Harriet Vane, Patricia Wentworth’s Maude Silver, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Ngaio Marsh’s Agatha Troy are just a few examples of Golden Age female characters. And recent decades have added to that number. From Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone to Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss to Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest, we’ve seen the number of strong female characters grow rapidly. Space doesn’t permit me to mention each one of them (I know, I know, fans of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and of Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski).
And even in novels that feature male protagonists, the female characters have gotten stronger and more self-sufficient. Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti for instance is married to the very strong and independent Paola Falier. And Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller was married to the formidable Maggie ‘McFierce’ McPherson, who can most definitely hold her own as a character. There are many other examples too; I’m sure you could give me more than I could ever offer to you.
It’s not just a matter of strength of character either. More and more, female characters have positions of high authority and power, too. Again, I won’t go on and on with a list of examples. Suffice it to say that in just about any sub-genre of crime fiction, there are women who are high-ranking police officers, bank presidents, well-known attorneys and so on.
And from what I read in reviews and on blogs, readers want it that way. They want female characters, whether or not they are protagonists, to be ‘fleshed out,’ to be strong, and to be interesting as people. If you look at the sales for authors such as Leon and Connelly, you know that people buy a lot of books in which women are portrayed as strong characters. What’s more, those authors don’t write a series of books in which killers target only beautiful young women and subject them to unspeakable horrors.
So why are we seeing these two simultaneous trends? I don’t know the precise reason. And it could very well be that the two trends have absolutely nothing to do with each other. I’m going out on a proverbial limb here, not being a psychologist or other expert who’s studied the role of women. One guess might be that different sorts of people buy those two different sorts of books. I don’t have access to marketing data, but I wonder whether people who buy books that feature extreme violence against women also buy books in which they play significant roles and are in fact, strong protagonists. Another guess might be that this dual trend says something about society’s view of women. That’s a complicated issue in and of itself of course. But books usually do have something to say about the society in which the authors live.
I honestly don’t have the answer, but I would love to hear your thoughts. Do you see this same dual trend? If you do, where do you think it comes from? Where do you see it going? If you’re a writer, do you think about the roles your female characters play? Thanks, Mrs. P, for the inspiration.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Always a Woman.