Category Archives: Patricia Wentworth

And She Only Reveals What She Wants You to See*

Sleuths' ThoughtsOne of the major developments we’ve seen in crime fiction over the years has arguably been the move from the sleuth as a third person – as someone whose thoughts we don’t always know – to the sleuth as the first person. Of course, not all modern crime novels are written in the first person. But in many of them, the reader is privy to what’s going on in the sleuth’s mind. And that makes sense, since today’s crime fiction fans want their characters, by and large, to be well-developed.

But as those who’ve read classic and Golden Age crime fiction know, that hasn’t always been the style. Here are just a few examples; I know that those of you who’ve read classic and Golden Age detective fiction will be able to provide lots more than I could.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is (at least to me) an interesting case in point. He does let us know how he deduces things. He also occasionally gives his opinion about one thing or another. For instance, we know that he’s not much of a fan of the police (with one or two exceptions). But as a rule, readers aren’t privy to what he’s really thinking. Rather, we learn about Holmes ‘from the outside,’ mostly through Dr. Watson. On the one hand, this invites the reader to get caught up in the mystery and try to get to the solution of a case. On the other hand, we can often only speculate on what Holmes really thinks about it all. He keeps the cards, as the saying goes, close to his chest.

The same might be said of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. We get a sense from things that he says that he has a philosophical side. And we also learn some of his views about religion and about what it means to be a good person. There are a few other things we learn about his thought processes too. But readers don’t really ‘get into his head.’ The Father Brown stories don’t, for instance, follow him home at night as he makes tea and thinks about whatever case he’s involved in at the moment. Readers also don’t learn what his opinions are about a given case. That’s not generally revealed until close to the end of the story, as Father Brown explains how he came to certain conclusions.

That’s also often the case with Patricia Wentworth’s Maude Silver. Readers follow along of course as Miss Silver meets new clients, discusses their cases and so on. We know a bit about Miss Silver’s background (former governess turned private investigator), and we know something of her methods too. But readers don’t know what she’s thinking as she puts the pieces of the puzzle together, so to speak. She has her ways of ‘saving the day,’ but we don’t know what she thinks about it all, except for what she says. In other words, readers don’t ‘get in her head.’

Several of Christianna Brand’s novels feature Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police. He’s a police detective, so in that sense, we know the way he goes about solving crimes. He talks to witnesses and suspects, observes the evidence and so on. In fact, sometimes Brand lets the reader in on the main clues that Cockrill notices. Readers are also privy to certain thoughts Cockrill has (from Green For Danger):

‘Cockrill had been waiting for something, but not for this.’

But we don’t always know what he’s thinking as he investigates. The stories are told more or less ‘from the outside.’

And then there’s John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell. We know a few things about his personal life, and we do learn how he draws the conclusions he draws. He explains himself, so that the reader can see how he came to suspect the killer. But readers aren’t really privy to what he’s thinking as the case develops. We don’t ‘get in his head’ as he looks through the clues and listens to what people say, either. In fact, we don’t always know what he thinks of the various people with whom he interacts.

Agatha Christie lets us in on a few of Hercule Poirot’s and Miss Marple’s thoughts. For instance, readers know how Miss Marple feels about being ‘looked after’ by Miss Knight in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Cracked). If you haven’t read that one, you can, I am sure, imagine how she might feel with an overzealous paid nurse/companion watching everything she does, eats, and so on. Readers are privy to Poirot’s feelings about things too. For example, we know Poirot is not fond of then-modern standards for beauty and dress. In several stories, Christie lets us in on his thinking about that topic. Poirot also often lets clues drop when he notices something. But he is notoriously close-mouthed about the theories he develops and his views about a given case. He says that it’s because he may be wrong and doesn’t want to influence anyone else’s thinking. But that strategy also serves to invite the reader to match wits with him.

One really can’t say that anything is true of all classic/Golden Age mysteries (or any other sub-genre, for the matter of that). There are well-written modern mysteries that don’t let readers in on much of the sleuth’s thinking. And there are well-written mysteries from earlier times in which we do know much of what the sleuth is thinking. That said though, as a general pattern, we see more crime fiction now where we ‘get into the sleuth’s head.’

A possible reason for that might be the larger, more general distinction between plot-driven and character-driven stories. Another might be the increasing interest over the years in psychology and psychological plot threads. There could well be other reasons too.

What do you think about all this? Do you see this pattern? If you do, do you have a preference as to whether you know what the sleuth’s thinking is? If you’re a writer, how do you decide how much to tell the reader about the sleuth’s thoughts?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Always a Woman.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christianna Brand, G.K. Chesterton, John Dickson Carr, Patricia Wentworth

Here I’m in the Library*

LibrariesIn Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are discussing the ideal sort of crime. They quickly agree that the crime would be murder, and here’s what Hastings says about the scene of the crime:


‘Scene of the crime – well, what’s wrong with the good old library? Nothing like it for atmosphere.’


He may have a point. One of the mainstays of older homes of the well-off was always a library. It may not be as common today but the home library has left its mark on crime fiction. I’m only going to mention a few examples; I know you can think of many more than I can.

Christie herself makes effective use of a library in The Body in the Library. One morning, Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly awake to learn that the body of an unknown young woman has been found in the library of their home Gossington Hall. Neither claims to know the victim, although the police are not completely satisfied about that. Nonetheless, they investigate other possibilities too. The first thing of course is to identify the dead woman. A search of missing person’s records turns up a match with Ruby Keene, an eighteen-year-old professional dancer. There are several suspects, so the police and Miss Marple begin to sift through the possibilities. Then another body is found in a charred car belonging to the last person known to see Ruby alive. Now Miss Marple has to work to find out how the two crimes are related and who could have wanted to kill both victims.

Michael Innes introduces his Inspector Appleby in Death at the President’s Lodging. That story features the murder of Josiah Umpleby, President of St. Andrews College. When Umpleby is shot in his study (another classic setting!), Appleby is called in and begins to unravel the network of relationships among Umpleby and the other members of the college faculty. It turns out that as you might expect, those relationships were both complicated and at times tense. So more than one person might have had a motive for murder. One of the steps Appleby takes is a thorough search of the victim’s private residence, which includes a personal library. And sure enough, Appleby finds an important clue there. It doesn’t immediately solve the mystery of who killed Umpleby, but it provides some vital information.

Patricia Wentworth’s The Watersplash follows the story of Edward Random, who’s recently returned to the supposedly-peaceful village of Greenings after a family quarrel cut him out of the family fortune. The Random family has a complicated history with its share of infighting, and there’ve always been whispers that Uncle James’ will, which doesn’t mention Edward at all, was superseded by a later will in which Edward does inherit. But that will has never been found.  What’s more, Edward’s cousin Arthur has inherited under the official will, and is not willing to give up the family fortune. Then, William Jackson, who serves as one of the family under-gardeners and claims to have witnessed that new will, is found dead, apparently of an accidental drowning. Then there’s another death. Now Edward Random falls under suspicion of murder. Maude Silver had already been aware of the case (no spoilers as to how) and decides to find out the truth about the will and the murders. And the family library, which is currently being re-catalogued, is the scene of some very important action in the story. It also hides an important clue.

Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil sees Queen spending some time in Hollywood. He’s taken a house there so he can get some peace and quiet for writing. But that’s not what happens. Instead, nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill asks Queen’s help. Her father Leander Hill has recently died of a heart attack. Laurel is convinced that the heart attack was deliberately brought on by a series of macabre ‘gifts’ her father had received. He never told her what frightened him so much about them, but she does know that his business partner Roger Priam has also gotten unpleasant ‘gifts.’ Queen is reluctantly drawn into the case because the intellectual puzzle presented by those ‘gifts’ fascinates him. So he begins to get to know the people in Leander Hill’s and Roger Priam’s lives. Very slowly he makes sense of the packages they’ve received. Then one night, Priam’s library is broken into and one of the books burned. That provides an important clue, and the library itself shows an interesting aspect of Priam’s personality. Not very long after, Roger Priam is nearly killed. Although he’s been unwilling to give Queen any information up to that point, he does talk to Queen after the attempt on his life. Queen finally establishes that Leander Hill was murdered and Roger Priam nearly murdered because of a secret from their pasts.

Lilian Jackson Braun uses personal libraries in a few of her Cat Who… stories. One of them is The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal. The local community theatre group has been doing a production of Henry VIII under the direction of local high-school principal Hilary VanBrook. On the night of the final performance, his body is found in his car after an impromptu cast party at the home of journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. Qwill and local police chief Andrew Brodie look into the case and soon find that Van Brook had made more than his share of enemies. So there are several suspects. One of the important clues in the case comes from VanBrook’s personal library, and there’s an interesting scene in the novel as Qwill is looking through VanBrook’s collection. For a bibliophile like Qwill, the chance to explore a library is irresistible.

And that’s the thing about libraries. They are such atmospheric settings for murder. And even when the deed itself doesn’t take place in the library, there aren’t much better hiding places for clues. Little wonder so many mystery novels have an old family library in them. What do you think? Professor Plum, in the library, with the revolver?  ;-)

Now I’ve given a few examples, it’s your turn…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Mike + the Mechanics’ A House of Many Rooms.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Michael Innes, Patricia Wentworth

You’re so Clever*

Flash of IngenuityIn crime fiction, both sleuths and criminals sometimes find themselves in difficult situations. When they do, it can take a bit of ingenuity to get out of those ‘tough spots.’ So a little ingenuity is a valuable skill, whether you’re the one breaking the law or the one catching the lawbreaker. One challenge with those great little flashes of ingenuity is that they can stretch credibility too far. So the author who’s going to include them has to be careful not to push things too far. But within limits, those little moments can really add to the story. If you’ve ever caught yourself thinking, ‘That was clever!’ while reading about one of those bits of ingenuity, you know exactly what I mean.

Everyone’s got his or her own favourite ‘ingenious moments’ in crime fiction. One of mine appears in Alrthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia. The King of Bohemia is planning to get married, but there’s one cloud hanging over the festivities. The king’s former lover Irene Adler has a compromising photograph of them, and he is concerned about the scandal that could come from that. So he hires Sherlock Holmes to get the ‘photo back from Adler. Holmes agrees, but he finds out that his quarry is more than a match for him. The way in which Irene Adler escapes, leaving another ‘photo for him instead of the one he wants, is a very clever bit of ingenuity.

In Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask, Charles Moray returns to England after having been away for a few months. He goes to his family home one night only to find to his shock that it’s been taken over by a gang of criminals led by a man known only as Grey Mask. When Moray sees that his former fiancée Margaret Langton may be mixed up with the gang, he’s even more upset. At the suggestion of a friend, Moray visits Maude Silver, who agrees to look into the matter. The criminal gang and Grey Mask turn out to be connected to the case of a contested will in which eighteen-year-old Margot Standing may inherit a fortune. But when Moray starts to get closer to finding out who Grey Mask really is, he and Margaret Langton get into danger; at one point, they’re even trapped in a cellar. But Langton thinks of a very clever way to get out. She tears up a note into some small pieces and leaves the pieces as a sort of trail. In the end, that’s how the two are found and freed.

Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers gets the chance to show how ingenious she can be in The Penguin Pool Murder. Miss Withers is a schoolteacher who’s brought her class to the New York Aquarium for a field trip. While they’re there, a thief tries to steal Miss Withers’ handbag. Not one to take such a thing lightly, she thinks quickly and uses her umbrella to trip the thief, which allows the museum security guard and later, the police, to step in. As if that weren’t enough excitement, Miss Withers and her class are also witnesses when the body of a man slides, seemingly from nowhere, into the penguin tank. Police detective Oscar Piper is called in and the investigation begins. The dead man turns out to be stockbroker Gerald Lester, and as Piper starts to look into the case, he finds that there are several suspects. For one thing, Lester’s wife Gwen was at the Aquarium at the time of the murder – and so was her lover Philip Seymour. Then there’s the fact that several of Lester’s business clients have been wiped out by the recent stock market crash (The novel was published in 1931). So several of them might have a good reason for wanting to kill him. There are other possibilities too. The evidence begins to point very strongly to both Gwen Lester and at one point Piper has no choice but to arrest her. The only problem is that it’ll create a media circus, and Piper isn’t entirely convinced of her guilt. But Miss Withers thinks of a way to keep both the media and Piper’s superiors at bay. She switches clothes with Gwen Lester and distracts the media while Piper quietly takes Gwen to the police station. It’s quite ingenious, especially since it’s got to be done within just a few moments. Oh, and don’t worry; I didn’t give away spoilers. The case doesn’t end with that arrest…

Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee has to think quickly in several of his cases. In The Ghostway, he’s been assigned to find sixteen-year-old Margaret Billy Sosi, who’s left the boarding school she was attending. Chee suspects that her disappearance may have something to do with another case he’s working: the murder of Albert Gorman. Gorman is a Los Angeles Navajo who relocated to the Reservation only to end up dead not long afterwards. Chee follows both Sosi and the Gorman trail to the outskirts of Los Angeles, where he spots Gorman’s killer about to grab Sosi. Thinking quickly, Chee pretends to be very drunk and lurches up to the killer’s van. That distracts the killer long enough for Sosi to avoid being abducted. What’s interesting too is that Chee also uses the fact that he and Sosi speak Navajo, whereas the killer does not. Don’t tell me that knowing other languages isn’t useful. ;-)

Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher thinks quickly more than once in Cocaine Blues. She’s just returned from London to her native Melbourne at the request of an acquaintance Colonel Harper and his wife. They are concerned about their daughter Lydia, who’s been in very poor health lately. And they suspect that their son-in-law might be just shady enough to want Lydia out of the way. So they’ve asked Fisher to look into matters. When she gets to Melbourne, Fisher soon discovers which social circles Lydia moves in, and makes the young woman’s acquaintance. It’s not long before she discovers that there’s an illegal cocaine ring operating in the area and one night, she and her friend Bert Johnson are reconnoitering a pharmacy that seems to be at the hub of the trade. That’s when a group of thugs makes an appearance. They’re going after Sasha de Lisse, a man Fisher knows, and she and Bert decide to follow them and see where they take him. When they are spotted by the thugs, Fisher and Johnson think quickly and pretend to be lovers until the gang leaves. Then they’re able to follow up and find out more about who’s behind the cocaine ring.

In Steve Robinson’s In the Blood, wealthy Boston business executive Walter Sloane hires genealogist Jefferson Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry. His plan is to give the family tree to her as a birthday gift. Tayte accepts the job and finds that one branch of the family, headed by James Fairborne, returned to England in 1783 with a group of Royalists. Sloane sends Tayte to England to follow up on that branch of the family, and Tayte starts his search on the other side of the ocean. That’s where he discovers that Fairborne’s wife Eleanor and their three children seem to disappear from history. In fact, less than two years later, James Fairborne married again. So Tayte follows up on the mystery of what happened to the Fairborne family. In the process, he meets Amy Fallon, who lives in a home called Ferryman’s Cottage. In the basement of the house she discovers a very old writing box that turns out to be related to Tayte’s case. It’s not long though before both learn that someone wants very much to keep the Fairborne family history a secret. That means getting the box and its contents, so both Tayte and Fallon are in grave danger. At one point Fallon is abducted by launch, but her good friend Tom Laity, who’s an expert fisherman, sees what’s happened and follows the launch. When he thinks the coast is clear he finds out where Amy has been hidden, but then he’s attacked. He recovers temporarily and in a flash of ingenuity, uses a fishing line he has on his boat to leave a ‘water trail.’ Tayte is later able to follow that trail and find Amy.

It’s risky to use those flashes of ingenuity. They can stretch credibility very much too far, and they can pull the reader out of a story. But when they fall out naturally from the plot, they can also add to the pace of a story, and keep the reader interested. What do you think? Do you like those little bits of cleverness? Or do you think they’re too hard to believe? If you’re a writer, how do you use them?



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Pete Townshend.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Kerry Greenwood, Patricia Wentworth, Steve Robinson, Stuart Palmer, Tony Hillerman

Why Keep the Brakes On? Let’s Misbehave!*

1920'sWhat do you think of when you think of the 1920’s? Do you think of ‘flappers?’ Of Babe Ruth? Prohibition?  The growth of Hollywood? It was an action-packed decade, and so many things happened at that time that it’s no wonder it’s got such an appeal. There’s a certain mystique about art-deco and 1920’s style extravagance among other things. So it’s no wonder that the 1920’s is also a big part of crime fiction.

For one thing, many people argue that the Golden Age of crime fiction began to hit its stride in the 1920’s. And I’m sure that those of you who are Golden Age fans could list a large number of authors and books from that time – many more than I could. Let me just mention a few. Dorothy Sayers’ series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey debuted in 1923 with Whose Body?, in which Wimsey investigates the murder of an unknown man whose body is found in a bathtub. This plot thread ties in with embezzlement and another man who seems to have disappeared. In this novel, we see one of the hallmarks of the 1920’s – the class differences that still remained quite strong. Wimsey and his family are wealthy and privileged. They have access to all sorts of means that ‘ordinary’ people do not. And the theme of class differences is woven into more than one of Sayers’ novels. phryne-fisher-200x0

We also see those stark class differences in historical series. For instance, Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series features Fisher, who was born to the working class but inherited a title and fortune. So she mixes and mingles in the highest social circles. And yet, we also see that not everyone has that sort of prosperity. In Cocaine Blues for instance, Fisher gets involved in cracking an illegal (and dangerous) abortion clinic for working-class girls and young women whose families don’t have the means to make it all quietly ‘go away’ safely.

The 1920’s were also a time of great waves of immigration, and not just to the United States. Travel was becoming easier and the Great War had uprooted millions of people. The resulting diversity was one of the major social changes of the era. But that immigration also resulted in quite a lot of ethnic and racial prejudice. We see that reflected in crime fiction of the era too. In Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley for instance, a group of friends is gathered at Black Dudley, the home of academician Wyatt Petrie. During the course of this house party, Petrie’s uncle Gordon Crombie dies, and it looks very much as though his death is suspicious. One of the guests Albert Campion takes a hand in finding out the truth about the death and about a mysterious ritual that’s supposedly associated with the family living there. In the course of the novel, there are several ‘isms’ and offensive references to members of different groups. You’ll find those in lots of other crime fiction of that decade too.

For several reasons, the roles of women changed fundamentally during the 1920’s. Just as one example, between 1920 and 1929, voting rights were extended to include women in the Czech Republic, Sweden, the U.K., the U.S. and Belgium among other countries (Australia granted federal voting rights to women in 1902, but some states granted it earlier for state elections. Canadian women had full federal voting rights in 1918. Women had had full suffrage in New Zealand since 1893).  We see the changing status of women in a lot of crime fiction from and about that era. Certainly we see it in Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series. Fisher is single and in no hurry to marry. She’s independent, liberated and although she certainly depends on her circle of friends, I’d say the word ‘demure’ hardly describes her.

We see that also in the work of Agatha Christie. Several of her female characters are independent, strong women. There’s Anne Beddingfeld from The Man in the Brown Suit; there’s Katherine Grey from The Mystery of the Blue Train; and there’s ‘Cinderella’ (giving away her real name would be giving away too much of the plot) from The Murder on the Links, just to name three. All of these women think for themselves. They’re not averse to falling in love, and they’re not ‘man haters.’ But all of them reflect the reality of that time that women were coming into their own, so to speak.

A lot of people associate the 1920’s with extravagant parties and hedonism and it was certainly there. We see a hint of that in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client). Hercule Poiriot and Captain Hastings investigate the death of Miss Emily Arundell, who supposedly died of liver failure, but has a group of relations desperate for her fortune. One of them is Theresa Arundell, a young ‘jet-setter’ who goes with a ‘party crowd,’ drinks heavily and so on. She’s not painted unsympathetically, but she is reckless.

And reckless is I think a good way to describe some aspects of that era. I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know for sure why the 1920’s was such a time of reckless abandon for a lot of people but here’s my guess. World War I changed everything for everyone. The real threat of mortality (especially with the influenza pandemic that followed that war) made a lot of people decide to enjoy life while they could You see that in writing from the era (e.g. F. Scott Fitzgerald) and you see that theme of deep wounds from the Great War in some terrific historical mystery series too. May I suggest Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, ‘Charles Todd’s’ Inspector Ian Rutledge series, and Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple series. You can also see it in Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles. In all of those novels and series, we get a sense of the privations of the war and the ‘flu pandemic. People wanted to forget it, to plunge into life and have fun while they could.

Of course there was plenty of violence during the 1920’s too. There was a lot of union unrest and the backlash from that. There was plenty of ugly, ugly racism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigration and political corruption and that too led to a lot of violence. And there was organized crime. There’s a trace of that rise in organized crime in Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask, in which Charles Moray returns to England after some time away only to find that his home has been taken over by a criminal gang and that the woman who broke his heart may be mixed up with it. And then there’s Jeffrey Stone’s Play Him Again. In that historical mystery, Matt ‘Hud’ Hudson is a ‘rum-runner’ – a smuggler of then-illegal alcohol who supplies Hollywood’s luminaries with ‘liquid fuel’ for their parties. When a friend of his is murdered, Hud goes after those responsible, including a very nasty crime gang that’s moved into the area. That novel also explores what Prohibition was like in the U.S. (and makes it clear why the law enforcing Prohibition was never going to be really successful).

I could go on and on about the 1920’s (Jazz, anyone? The Harlem Renaissance? The fashions!) Moira at Clothes in Books has done some great posts on the clothes and fashions of the era. Here’s just one example. But this one post doesn’t give me nearly enough space to talk about it all. The 1920’s was too influential a decade for that. So now it’s your turn. Does that era appeal to you? Which books and series from and about that era do you like? Help me please to fill the gaps I left.


ps. The pearls on the left in the top ‘photo are part of a long double strand of pearls that belonged to my grandmother. On the right is a double-strand necklace that belonged to my grandmother-in-law. Both are genuine vintage…   The other ‘photo is of the terrific Essie Davis, who portrayed Phryne Fisher in the very well-done (in my opinion, anyway) Australian series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. These episodes are adaptations of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels and if you get the chance, I can recommend them. They aren’t of course 100% true to the novels, but very nicely done I think.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cole Porter’s Let’s Misbehave.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Carola Dunn, Charles Todd, Dorothy Sayers, Jacqueline Winspear, Jeffrey Stone, Kerry Greenwood, Margery Allingham, Patricia Wentworth

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.


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