Women as the authors – and subjects – of crime fiction

Jane Jones

From our very own crime-writer Jane Jones

The fascination with what frightens us starts young. When I was a little girl, my grandmother found some pictures I’d drawn which did not call forth the usual fond praise. The images showed a black-hatted figure cutting up naked children with a knife and fork. She was so appalled that she immediately consulted my parents! Was I psychologically disturbed? No more so than any other child after their first reading of ‘Hansel and Gretel’.

At thirteen, I discovered murder mysteries. Previously, the death of a fictional character had tended to upset me: Beth March in ‘Good Wives’, Helen Burns in ‘Jane Eyre’, Bambi’s mother …But when Agatha Christie killed off a character, I felt no distress whatsoever. It simply came with the territory. A particularly gruesome murder might elicit a frisson, but all that really mattered to me was unravelling the mystery, safe in the knowledge that justice would always be done by the final chapter. The novels, despite their subject matter, were not the stuff of nightmares.

I once heard P.D. James suggest that women were attracted to crime fiction because it offers a sense of control over the violence we so greatly fear. She may well be right. I’m not so sure about claims by others that all girls grow up knowing that to be female is synonymous with being prey, although plenty of recent crime novels and drama series have done their best to create that impression. Yes, a tough woman investigator figure might well be included, but this nod to equality doesn’t stop the corpses being preponderantly female, frequently unclothed, and all too often sexually brutalised in ways which are made horribly explicit. It truly is the stuff of nightmares. I’m grateful I didn’t encounter anything like it when I was thirteen; I only wish I didn’t encounter it with such regularity now. Certainly, nothing could ever persuade me to write about it myself.

In Agatha Christie’s world, at least, to be female is not a problem. Women are never killed just for being women. They are killed for the same reasons men are killed: because they are obstacles to the murderer’s pursuit of power, status, property, revenge, security, love or some other highly desirable goal. A woman is not automatically weak, or helpless, or a victim; she is actually quite as capable of committing murder as a man, and often does. She can catch murderers too: Miss Marple’s success rate equals Hercule Poirot’s, and unlike him she is not an oddball loner. Christie consistently presents her as being very much at the heart of her local community.

Body in the Library coverI recently re-read ‘The Body in the Library’ as research for my short story in ‘Unchained’, and was struck by the dominance of the female characters. It goes without saying that Miss Marple outperforms the entire male police force, but where would Colonel Bantry be without his perspicacious wife? The ingenious murders are devised by a bright young woman of humble background whose dashing, handsome, socially superior male partner does whatever she tells him. Even the female corpses turn out to have been active, resourceful human beings before their deaths. No wonder, as a teenaged girl, I enjoyed the novel so much.

Agatha Christie is often dismissed today as ‘cosy’ and ‘unrealistic’, although this may be partly due to the heavy-handed characterisation and overdone period settings that have marked the TV adaptations of her work; I’d love to see a more subtle production team get their hands on it. And just how realistic are all those psychopathic-serial-killer stories, anyway? Not very, I’d argue.

But maybe that’s only because I find them far too scary. Rather like ‘Hansel and Gretel’.

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