Category Archives: Mickey Spillane

I Don’t Want Clever Conversation*

EuphemismsA very interesting post from B.C. Stone at The Vagrant Mood has got me thinking about euphemisms. Oh, and before I go on, you’ll want to go pay a visit to The Vagrant Mood. It’s a fantastic resource for all sorts of thoughts on writing, classic novels, film and art. Trust me.

Now, back to euphemisms. There are a lot of topics people may feel uncomfortable talking about, and euphemisms can help people discuss them without feeling so awkward. We don’t want to be lied to, and most of us don’t like lying to others. At the same time, blunt terms can make it really difficult to discuss certain things. So it makes sense that people use euphemisms at times. They run through crime-fictional conversations just as they do any other conversation, so you see them a lot in the genre. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver has traveled to the village of Woodleigh Common to spend some time with her friend Judith Butler. While there, she assists at the preparations for the local school’s Hallowe’en party. At one point, she needs to excuse herself:

 

‘Mrs. Oliver…left the room in search of a particular apartment, the geography of which is usually fairly easily identified.’

 

It’s obvious of course where Mrs. Oliver is headed, but Christie chooses a euphemistic expression. During the preparations for the party, one of the young people there, Joyce Reynolds, boasts of having seen a murder. No-one believes her, but when she is murdered during the party later that day, it’s clear that she might have been telling the truth. So Mrs. Oliver asks her friend Hercule Poirot to investigate. He agrees and discovers that Joyce’s murder has everything to do with past events in the village.

Many, many crime novels use euphemisms for prostitution. Women who are employed that way are sometimes called ‘working girls’ and sometimes ‘sex workers.’ Here’s an interesting perspective on euphemisms from that profession from Jill Edmondson’s Dead Light District. In that novel, Toronto PI Sasha Jackson gets a new client Candace Curtis, who runs an exclusive bordello. Curtis is worried because one of her employees Mary Carmen Santamaria has gone missing. Jackson isn’t too sure about the case but she does accept it. It turns out that the search for the missing Mary Carmen leads into Toronto’s very shady underworld, as well as into the world of human trafficking. Here’s a bit of a conversation that Jackson and Curtis have early in the novel:

 

‘You have a database of hookers?’… [Jackson]
‘Please, don’t call them hookers. Most of the girls use the term intimacy consultant, though some call themselves relaxation therapists. I know they’re euphemisms, but they’re important to the girls’ self esteem.’
‘Consultants. Right. Got it.’

 

As the novel goes on, Jackson learns that she has some preconceived notions about the business, and it’s interesting to see her reaction as her assumptions go up against what she finds out.

In Mickey Spillane’s My Gun is Quick, PI Mike Hammer is at a coffee shop when he meets Nancy Sanford who sometimes uses the coffee shop as a ‘sales office.’ (See? I use euphemisms too at times.) She approaches Hammer, and when he demurs, she says,

 

‘Rest easy Mister, I won’t give you a sales talk. There are only certain types interested in what I have to sell.’

 

Hammer has some compassion for Nancy, and when she tells him how she got into the business, he gives her some money to make a new start for herself. Shortly after they meet, Nancy is run down in a not-so-accidental hit-and-run incident. When Hammer finds out, he determines to track down her murderer. In the process he uncovers a prostitution ring with some very high-level connections.

There are plenty of other euphemisms related to prostitution and sex of course, and we see them all throughout crime fiction. Here, for instance, is a bit of a conversation from Philip Kerr’s Prague Fatale, featuring his Berlin PI Bernie Gunther. At this point in the novel, Gunther is looking for a young woman Arianne Tauber. He thinks she works at a place called the Golden Horseshoe, but one of the hostesses there tells him that she doesn’t:

 

‘So where does she work?’ [Gunther]
‘Arianne? She runs the cloakroom at the Jockey Bar. Has for a while. For a girl like Arianne, there’s a lot of money to be made at the Jockey.
‘In the cloakroom?’
‘You can do a lot more in a cloakroom than just hang a coat, honey.’

 

Gunther knows without his informant having to use vulgar terms exactly what kind of girl Arianne Tauber probably is…

Of course, crime and mystery fiction often deals with murder. And a lot of people are uncomfortable with words such as ‘dead,’ ‘deceased,’ or ‘killed.’ Euphemisms can make conversations with witnesses and family members a little easier. There are dozens and dozens of examples of this sort of euphemism in crime fiction; here is just one. In Jane Casey’s The Burning, DC Maeve Kerrigan and her team at the Met are investing two cases that may be related. One is a series of murders committed by a killer dubbed ‘the Burning Man’ by the press, since he tries to destroy his victims’ bodies by fire. Another is the murder of Rebecca Haworth, who may or may not have been the Burning Man’s latest victim. At one point, Kerrigan is talking to Haworth’s parents, trying to get a sense of what she was like. The idea is that the more she knows about the victim, the closer she’ll get to the killer. When the conversation is over, Haworth’s father says,

 

‘She was happy. She had everything to live for. So please, Maeve, do find the person who did this to her, for our sake.’

 

Neither of Haworth’s parents is unwilling to face the fact that she is dead, although it is devastating. But the euphemism is still useful to them.

I could of course go on and on about euphemisms because they are so common in language. In part that’s because most of us do want to be told the truth, but we don’t always want it told in the most unvarnished terms. Which examples of euphemisms have you noticed in crime fiction?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are.

27 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Jane Casey, Jill Edmondson, Mickey Spillane, Philip Kerr

We Are Detective, Come to Collect*

PIsOne of the ways in which crime fiction has evolved in the last sixty or seventy years has arguably been the increasing variety of PI sleuths. And perhaps this is just my opinion (so do feel free to differ with me if you do) but I think it’s a good thing. In real life, private investigators take all kinds of cases, from spouses who suspect their partners of cheating to pre-hiring background checks to investigators who work with attorneys on their cases. And it hardly need be said that today’s PIs come from all kinds of backgrounds.

‘Gentleman detectives’ such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes paved the way for the modern PI novel, which today ranges from the light (e.g. Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe series) to the noir (e.g.  Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series). One post is hardly enough to do the modern PI novel justice, but let’s just take a quick look at the sub-genre.

Authors such as Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and Mickey Spillane were at the forefront of the ‘hard boiled’ PI novel. In Macdonald’s The Drowning Pool for instance, Maude Slocum hires PI Lew Archer to find out who sent a slanderous letter to her husband James. The letter alleges that Maude’s been having an affair, and she is afraid that if James finds out, the marriage will end in divorce. Archer takes the case and begins his investigation. Right from the beginning he learns of the dysfunction in the Slocum family. James’ mother Olivia is quite wealthy and uses her financial power to manipulate the family. Maude and her mother-in-law have never been exactly friends, and Maude resents the fact that James is somewhat of a ‘mother’s boy.’ So when Olivia is found dead one day in her swimming pool, there’s every chance one of the family could be responsible. But then again, oil magnate Walter Kilbourne wanted to drill on the Slocum estate and Olivia was firmly set against the idea. So the murder could be the work of Kilbourne or one of his paid ‘associates.’ As Archer investigates, we get to see the seamier side of the way the wealthy live.

Anthony Bidulka’s PI sleuth Russell Quant also sometimes sees the not-so-very-nice side of ‘the beautiful life.’ In Tapas on the Ramblas for instance, wealthy business executive Charity Wiser believes that someone in her family is trying to kill her. She hires Quant to find out who it is and invites him on a family cruise to get to know the other members of the Wiser clan so he can ‘scope them out.’ As he does so, he discovers that just about everyone in the family had a motive for murder. It’s not just a matter of greed, either. There’s a lot of dysfunction in this family and the better Quant gets to know the family members, the more he uncovers about the undercurrents of resentment. Then, there are two attempts at murder and later, a death. In the end, Quant puts the pieces of the puzzle together but not before he comes close to being a victim himself.

We get an interesting look ‘behind the scenes’ of a PI firm in Julie Smith’s Talba Wallis series. Wallis lives and works in New Orleans, where she’s employed by E.V. Anthony Investigations. The firm does background checks on potential employees and at the beginning of Louisiana Bigshot, we learn that Wallis also investigates cheating spouses. In fact that’s what her friend Clayton Robineau (who goes by the name Babalu Maya) hires her to do. Babalu thinks that her fiancé Jason Wheelock has been unfaithful and wants Wallis to find out whether it’s true. At first Wallis doesn’t want to take the case; she would rather Babalu simply break up with Wheelock than learn all of the sordid details of any affair he’s having. But Babalu insists, so Wallis begins to investigate. She finds out that her friend was right and breaks the bad news. Shortly after that, Babalu is found dead, apparently a successful suicide. Wallis doesn’t think it was a suicide though, and neither does Jason Wheelock. So Wallis starts to look into the case more closely. She finds that Babalu’s family history and someone’s desperate need to protect a reputation are the keys to the murder.

Jill Edmondson’s Toronto PI Sasha Jackson doesn’t work for a firm; she’s set up in business for herself. And one of the very effective elements in this series is that we get to see what it’s like to try to build up one’s client base, take care of the bills and so on. And in Dead Light District we get an interesting perspective on why some people hire private detectives instead of going to the police. Candace Curtis owns a brothel which she staffs with only the best employees. The client list is carefully vetted too. It’s an illegal business though, so when one of her employees Mary Carmen Santamaria goes missing, she can’t call the police about it. So she hires Jackson to find out what happened to Mary Carmen. Jackson is uncomfortable about the case. For one thing, she’s not comfortable with the thought of young women who, as she sees it, are being exploited. For another, Mary Carmen could simply not want to be found. If so, why shouldn’t she be left in peace? But Curtis is persuasive and a fee is a fee, so Jackson begins her investigation. But this turns out to be much more than a missing person case. First an alleged pimp is stabbed to death in a hotel and then there’s another murder. Then Curtis becomes a target. Jackson finds that what started out being a case of a prostitute who’s disappeared has led her to the underside of Toronto’s sex trade.

Some PIs don’t really think of themselves as PIs – at least not at first. Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins doesn’t. In the first few novels, before he gets his PI license, he thinks of it as ‘doing favours.’ So does Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder. In fact in The Sins of the Fathers, he says,

 

‘Sometimes I do favors for people. They give me gifts.’

 

And yet in both of these cases the sleuths learn that the PI business can be, if not exactly lucrative, at least a source of income.

Today’s PIs are a very diverse group. There’s the wisecracking ‘world’s greatest detective’ Elvis Cole (courtesy of Robert Crais), the not-domestically-inclined Kinsey Millhone (courtesy of Sue Grafton) and lots of others too. And that variety has added to the sub-genre.

Now, you may be wondering why I’ve not mentioned one of the best known PI sleuths, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski. I was saving this mention because today is (or yesterday was, depending on when you read this) Sara Paretsky’s birthday. So this post is in honour of what Ms. Paretsky has contributed to the crime fiction genre. V.I. Warshawski is one of the most popular PI sleuths in crime fiction. She’s a unique character with a strong commitment to social justice, a deep love of her home town (Chicago) and a true-blue sense of loyalty to her friends. She was one of the groundbreaking fictional female PIs and the novels featuring her have gained Ms. Paretsky a worldwide audience.

Happy Birthday Sara Paretsky and many more.

 

 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from The Thompson Twins’ We Are Detective.

18 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jill Edmondson, Julie Smith, Lawrence Block, Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Walter Mosley

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Cars

CarsWell, let’s C…I think the 2013 Crime Fiction Alphabet meme has reached – yes, it has reached – the third stop on our crime-ridden journey. Thanks as always to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for being such an excellent tour guide. My contribution (appropriate, I think, for a journey) is cars.

We all know that cars can be very dangerous. That’s why there are laws against drink driving, mobile ‘phone use while driving, and speeding. It’s why we’re always told to buckle up and stay alert. But if you look at crime fiction, you also see that cars aren’t just deadly because of accidents. They can be very effective murder weapons.

Agatha Christie mentions car-related deaths a few times in her work. One incident is part of the plot of And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). A group of people is invited for a stay at Indian Island, off the Devon Coast. For a variety of reasons they all accept. When they arrive, they’re a little surprised that their host has not yet made an appearance. Still, they settle in. That night after dinner, each guest is accused of being responsible for the death of at least one other person. Everyone is shocked at this accusation and at first there’s a round of denials. But then one of the guests Anthony Marston suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night there’s another death. Now the guests begin to see that they’ve been lured to the island by a murderer. As one by one the guests die, the survivors try to discover who the murderer is and stay alive. And what was the death of which Anthony Marston was accused? A hit-and-run car crash that killed two children.

Mickey Spillane’s My Gun is Quick also features deadly use of a car. In that novel, PI Mike Hammer is in a coffee shop when he meets Nancy Sanford, a young woman down on her luck who’s turned to prostitution. Hammer gives her some money to try to help her escape ‘the life’ and it seems that she will be able to start over. A few days later, though, Hammer learns that Nancy has been killed in a hit-and-run incident. There is no evidence that she was murdered but Hammer doesn’t believe her death was an accident. So he begins to investigate. He discovers that Nancy was trapped in a major prostitution ring. Before she was killed, she was collecting evidence against the ring leaders in hopes that they would be arrested. Needless to say, Hammer takes it on himself to finish what Nancy Sandford started.

In Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, twenty-eight-year-old violin virtuoso Gideon Davies is terrified one night when he finds himself unable to play. He seeks out psychological help to try to figure out what is causing this block and starts digging into his past. In the meantime, his mother Eugenie faces a very ‘here and now’ danger. One night, she is killed in what looks like a hit-and-run accident. As Inspector Thomas Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers soon discover, this was no accident. Eugenie Davis’ death is related to her son’s inability to play, and both are related to a long-ago tragedy in which two-year-old Sonia, Gideon’s sister, was drowned. At the time of her death, her nanny Katja Wolff was imprisoned for the drowning and has recently been released. As the novel evolves we see how this too relates to the rest of the story.

Melbourne activist Anne Jeppeson finds out the hard way just how dangerous cars can be in Peter Temple’s Bad Debts. She is killed in a hit-and-run incident and Danny McKillop is arrested for it. There’s a lot of evidence against him, too. After serving eight years in prison, he’s released and one of the first things he does is contact the lawyer who defended him Jack Irish. Irish was, to put it mildly, not at his best at the time of the trial; he was using alcohol to ease the pain of his wife Isabel’s murder and did a poor job of defending McKillop. So when McKillop calls him, Irish feels a sense of obligation. But by the time he gets around to meeting with his former client it’s too late; McKillop has been murdered. Irish decides to find out why and by whom, and slowly he pieces together what happened. McKillop was framed for Anne Jeppeson’s murder and the truth about what happened to both victims is bound up with politics, greed and corruption.

And then there’s Phil Smedway, whose life and death are part of the plot of Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are. Smedway was a beloved regional TV presenter who ‘hit it big.’ He was also a mentor to his successor Frank Allcroft. Then one day Smedway was killed in a hit-and-run incident during his regular jog. Everyone, including the police, thinks that this was a tragic accident. But Allcroft begins to wonder when he is drawn to the place where Smedway died. The road at the site is straight and clear of obstacles, so it would have been easy for even a drunken driver to see and avoid Smedway. What’s more, it wasn’t raining or snowing the weather wasn’t a factor. Allcroft decides to start asking questions about Smedway and his death. As he slowly finds out the answers, he also learns quite a bit about Smedway’s life.

Oh, and lest you think that the only danger from cars comes from hit-and-run incidents, consider Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth. In that novel, wealthy and eccentric Cadmus Cole hires Ellery Queen and Beau Rummell, who’ve just opened up a detective agency. Cole wants to find his only living relations. One is Margo Cole, who’s been living in Paris. The other is Kerrie Shawn, an aspiring actress who’s trying to make a success of herself in Hollywood. The two women are no sooner found than word comes that Cadmus Cole has died at sea. According to the provisions of Cole’s will, both Kerrie and Margo will have to move into Cole’s upstate New York mansion and live there in order to claim his considerable fortune. Not long after the young women move in, Kerrie is trapped in the mansion’s garage and is nearly killed by carbon monoxide poisoning from a running car engine. Later she’s accused when Margo is shot. Kerrie learns that not only is it dangerous to inherit a lot of money, it’s very dangerous to be around cars.

 

See? Cars may be necessary for a lot of people’s lives, but they do carry high risks. Buckle up and enjoy the ride! ;-)

 

Oh, and if you want to ride along with us as we continue our crime fiction journey, we’d love to have you. Check out the meme details right here!

26 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Elizabeth George, Ellery Queen, Mickey Spillane, Peter Temple

I’m Just a Poor Soul in the Unemployment Line, My God, I’m Hardly Alive*

UnemploymentIf you’ve ever been unemployed, you know the mix of fear and shame that being out of work can bring. There are of course people who don’t want to work. But the vast majority of people without jobs are not unemployed because they like it that way. On one level, the most basic of levels, unemployment threatens one’s security. Even for people who live in countries that have social ‘safety nets,’ unemployment means re-thinking every purchase. It means possibly having to leave one’s home. It means a struggle to provide the barest essentials. On another level there’s the whole matter of social perception. People who are unemployed, especially if it’s for more than a brief period, are often looked at with pity or worse, with hostility (i.e. ‘Why don’t you get off your lazy a*** and get a job!’). On yet another level there’s the deep sense of shame one feels when one doesn’t have work. After all, many people’s identities are tied up with what they do. I’ll bet when you meet someone for the first time, one of the questions that invariably get asked is, ‘What do you do for a living?’ So it’s not surprising that being unemployed deeply affects the way we act, the way we think and the way we look at the world. And it can drive people to all sorts of things they wouldn’t otherwise do. Little wonder then that unemployment is a thread that’s woven through a lot of crime fiction. Let me just give a few examples.

Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead is the story of Hercule Poirot’s investigation into the murder of a charwoman. Everyone in the village of Broadhinny thinks that Mrs. McGinty was murdered by her lodger James Bentley. And there is evidence against him. And yet, Superintendent Spence thinks Bentley may be innocent, so he asks Poirot to go to Broadhinny and look into the matter. One of the things that Poirot finds out quickly is that there’s a lot of local prejudice against Bentley. He had a job at an estate agent’s office but lost it and hasn’t been able to find another. That in itself is a major strike against him and it deeply affects his already shaky self-confidence. In fact, Bentley is so lacking in self-respect that he sees little point in re-investigating the case. Fortunately for him, Poirot doesn’t see things the same way and is able to find out the truth about Mrs. McGinty’s death.

In Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill, we meet William Decker. He’s a former safecracker who’s decided to ‘go straight’ mostly for the sake of his son. But it’s hard to find a job and after all, one can’t feed a child on good intentions. So Decker takes a fateful decision. One day, Spillane’s sleuth Mike Hammer is in a seedy bar when Decker comes in with his son. He downs two drinks in quick succession, says goodbye to his son and leaves the bar. Seconds later he’s knocked down in what looks like a hit-and-run incident. Hammer dashes outside in time to see that this is no ordinary hit-and-run tragedy. The passenger in the car that struck Decker also shot him to make he was dead. Hammer takes in Decker’s son and determines to find out who’s behind the murder. It turns out that Decker was desperate for money and got mixed up with a local criminal gang. At first it looks as though members of that gang killed him as punishment for bungling a job. But the reality turns out to be quite different.

Robert Pollock’s Loophole takes a solid look at several levels on which unemployment can wreak havoc on a person. Stephen Booker is an architect who’s just lost his job. At first, he works hard to find another, but he’s unsuccessful and begins to sink into depression. Finally, he settles for the only thing that he can find: a job driving a cab at night. He doesn’t earn much money but his self-respect and his marriage are suffering and he’s desperate for whatever he can get. Booker’s cab driving puts him in touch with professional thief Mike Daniels, who’s busy planning a major heist. He and his team want to break into the City Savings Deposit Bank. When Daniels discovers that Booker is an architect by background, he decides that the team could really use Booker’s expertise to perfect their plan. At first Booker refuses. But his sense of self-respect and his dire financial straits finally convince him that he ought to go along with the gang and that’s what he does. On the day of the break-in, all is planned and ready until a major storm comes through and changes everything. Now, Booker, Daniels and the rest will have to fight the weather as well as look out for the police and security staff if they’re to get their haul.

Ruth Rendell’s Simisola takes a close look at the financial and social consequences of unemployment. Twenty-two-year-old Melanie Akande wants to find a job and get her adult life started, so she schedules an appointment at the local employment bureau. Shortly after that appointment she disappears. Her father, who’s a doctor, asks his patient Reg Wexford to look into the disappearance and after a few days, Wexford does so. He and his team are just beginning to ask questions when the body of Annette Bystock is discovered. It was with Bystock that Melanie Akande had her appointment so the investigation team starts to focus its attention on the employment bureau. As the team members interview the bureau’s employees and those who make use of the employment service, we see the effects of not having a job on everyone’s perceptions. For example, those who apply for help are given appointments and then made to wait, sometimes for hours, until someone actually sees them. And those who work at the bureau don’t all have what you could call compassionate attitudes. On the other hand, not all of the job applicants are hard-working people who have simply had a tragic piece of bad luck. In the meantime, Wexford’s son-in-law Neil has lost his job. He is hardly perfect, but we see in his response to being unemployed how frustrating, enervating and humiliating it can be to be jobless. Rendell doesn’t offer easy answers to the problem of unemployment, which is just as well; there aren’t any. But she does invite the reader to think about how being unemployed affects one’s sense of self-worth and one’s choices. She also invites readers to think about the effects of others’ perceptions of those who have no jobs.

There’s an unflinching look at that perception in Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. That novel’s main plot is the investigation into the murder of Tasmania police sergeant John White, who is stabbed when he and a colleague Lucy Howard are called to the scene of a break-in. The prime suspect for the crime is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who comes from Glenorchy, a low-income suburb of Hobart. Police Commissioner Ron Chalmers is furious that one of his best men has been killed and is only too happy to write Darren Rowley off. As we learn more about Chalmers, we also learn his attitude towards those without jobs, especially those who live in places like Glenorchy. Here’s a bit of the way he compares the unemployed residents of Glenorchy with other people:

 

‘One generation of normal, sane, hardworking, decent, contributing human beings as opposed to two generations of dole-bludging, thieving, fighting pieces of trash.’

 

Chalmers’ attitude about the unemployed is extreme. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t shared by a lot of people.

That social perception of unemployment as a disgrace, combined with the sense of personal shame and of course, the fear of not being able to survive, makes having no job a very stressful situation.  Sadly, it happens to millions of people so it’s no surprise that crime writers explore the problem. I know I’ve only mentioned a few examples here. There are many more.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Blue Collar Man (Long Nights). Readers who are kind enough to check this blog regularly may remember that I just used this song a few days ago. Usually I don’t do that, but this part of the song reflects the reality for a lot of people without jobs.

31 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Mickey Spillane, Robert Pollock, Ruth Rendell, Y.A. Erskine

Oh, and She Never Gives Out and She Never Gives In*

ViolenceAgainstWomenA 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.

23 Comments

Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Dorothy Sayers, Helene Tursten, Jim Thompson, Marcia Muller, Michael Connelly, Mickey Spillane, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Wentworth, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton