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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  1. Hi Jane
    I also went through an Agatha Christie period in my teens – not to mention John Creasey and lots of other crime writers of the time. I agree they most certainly didn’t come across as cosy. TV seems to have given them a sheen of nostalgia, as if we’re more interested in the props and costumes than the action. Interesting that George Gently (60s?) has been given a much darker treatment. Ali B

  2. The imagination is a wonderful thing. I find suggestion far more powerful than all the gory details laid bare, whether in writing or on film; a frisson of fear far more effective than a full expose of evil doing. I think one of the reasons for Agatha Christie’s longevity, with on-going (and yes, very ‘period’) TV adaptations long after her death, is the intellectual focus on solving a mystery, and character interactions, as with many of our more recent popular crime dramas from Morse to light entertainment items like Death in Paradise (which manages to lighten many a winter’s evening, despite the subject matter…). Even aged 4, my daughter is fascinated and horrified by the concepts of crime and bad intentions – unable to tear her eyes from the witch stealing the baby in Rapunzel, yet quite upset by the questions this raises and very much in need of the reassurance of a happy ending. Perhaps the everlasting appeal of crime fiction lies in the dichotomy of good and evil, and a recognition that the capacity for both are equally with all of us?

    1. The capacity for good and evil, and the ability to choose between them, is certainly one of the things I find most satisfying about the kind of crime fiction now labelled ‘cosy’. That, and the compulsory happy ending, or at least an ending in which justice is done and there are no loose ends – unlike in real life, where there are always loose ends, injustice of various kinds is endemic, and murders are mainly committed by unthinking, inadequate (and often drunk or drugged) people in response to circumstances that overwhelm them. ‘Rapunzel’, like ‘Hansel and Gretel’, is seriously scary – much more so than a typical crime novel! But I think children need those stories, darkness and all; I don’t approve of the first two little pigs being allowed to escape the wolf and find refuge in the house of bricks with Piggy 3 …

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