Grip-lit, and how the women in crime fiction got interesting

For years, women were the victims in crime fiction but now writers are creating fascinating feminist characters and sending them on intriguing journeys of self-discovery. Alexandra Heminsley reports on the gripping new genre 

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By Alexandra Heminsley on

Women drive the fiction bestseller lists – a look at what we’re devouring is a look at where our current national obsessions lie. Bonkbusters reigned supreme in the glossy 80s, as did early titles in Ian Rankin’s fantastic Rebus series. The 1990s saw the rise of so-called chick-lit, with popular fiction depicting young women finding their place in world: getting the right job, or even the right flat mates, was as important as getting a decent boyfriend. Romantic fiction has never waned (and nor should it) but Scandinavian thrillers and domestic noir caught our imagination next. This, in turn, has given way to what pundits are now calling “grip-lit”: a phrase coined by author Marian Keyes to describe female driven thrillers and crime novels where women are more than a body in a hallway.

Since the phenomenal success of Gone Girl, which had Amy Dunne as the driver of her own narrative – *and* that of her hapless husband – grip-lit’s hold on our reading habits has seemed unstoppable. Last year’s Girl on the Train and I Let You Go were huge hits, and this spring presents a fresh crop of intriguing novels that sit somewhere between literary and crime fiction, but all have women as the driving force.

For years, readers were used to the idea of women as the victim in a narrative – as described and aided by the male detective through whose eyes we see the case, even storytellers as magnificent as PD James were using their male detective (Dalgliesh) more than their female (An Unsuitable Job for a Woman’s Cordelia Gray). This was, in fairness, an accurate reflection of the police force of decades ago, but stereotypes remained in fiction until recently. 

Suzie Dooré, previously Erin (The Poison Tree) Kelly’s editor and now publishing newcomer Susie Steiner as publishing director at Borough Press, has felt the shift. “Very broadly speaking, the traditional procedural used to be more male-led than female. I was acquiring exclusively crime fiction until about five years ago, and I developed a shorthand (divorced whisky jazz) for describing a certain type of book I saw a lot of – middle-aged white male detective, probably divorced, heavy drinker, with some quirk like a love of jazz or single-malt whisky.” 


Crime-fiction addicts are developing a taste for ideas more often found in novels that would be submitted for literary prizes, including feminism and sexuality 


And to go with the male characters, came slipshod female ones “Often the entire roster of female characters would be composed of crime victims, suspects’ mothers or wives, plus possibly a shrewish commanding officer or one slightly younger, quirkily attractive deputy with whom our detective had a gruff ‘will they won’t they?’ relationship,” explains Dooré. 

But now we’re being presented with a fresh, more representative characters, female readers are lapping it up. This week sees the publication of The Pool editor Sam Baker’s The Woman Who Ran, which takes a Brontë novel (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) and updates it with panache, tackling domestic violence, professional jealousy within a romantic relationship and a cracking chase scene. The FT has already declared it a “suspenseful offering that balances atmospheric scene-setting with adroit character-building”.

Aga Lesiewicz’s Rebound, also out this month, was picked from the publisher’s slush pile for its unique female voice. The protagonist becomes embroiled in a crime not because she catches a mysterious stranger’s eye but because of the location for her unapologetic bouts of post-breakup shagging. Next month, Susie Steiner’s Missing, Presumed, tackles a missing girl - but tells it through the eyes of her mother and Detective Manon Bradshaw, both of whom are prompted to wonder about their own life choices as a result. Its exceptional characterisation makes it read more like literary fiction than just another police procedural.

Perhaps it is this canny combining of the two genres that is where grip-lit’s success lies. Crime-fiction addicts are developing a taste for ideas more often found in novels that would be submitted for literary prizes: feminism, sexuality and complicated journeys of self-discovery. And the changing face of modern literary detectives, and the women they interact with, have opened up crime and thrillers to readers who previously considered themselves above “such tosh”. 

If there is a bookish equivalent of the Bechdel Test, hopefully a high percentage of crime fiction would now pass it

Of course there have been exceptions over the years, such as Lynda La Plante’s Jane Tennison, and PD James’s Cordelia Gray – but their women were treated as pioneers, or exceptions. Today, it is commonplace to see women as agents of their own destiny whether as survivor or law enforcer. As Dooré points out, “If there is a bookish equivalent of the Bechdel Test, hopefully a high percentage of crime fiction would now pass it”. 

It certainly looks as if things are moving in the right direction, particularly as the state of the bestseller list dictates what agents and publishers will want to publish. So bye-bye divorced-whist-jazz and hello women-we-see-everyday. We want to read about more than moody cops, mysterious intruders or jilted lovers, we want to see women we recognise, doing jobs we know they are capable of, behaving as we like to think we or our friends and sisters would. And we’re often prepared to stay up until 4am to do it. I’ve heard. 

Grip-lit titles out this spring

Missing, Presumed - Susie Steiner (Borough Press) 

Come for the mystery, stay for DS Manon Bradshaw…

The Woman Who Ran - Sam Baker (Harper Fiction) 

Sam Baker’s gripping take on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Rebound - Aga Lesiewcz (Macmillan)

Rebound sex, office politics and dead bodies on Hampstead Heath.

The Widow - Fiona Barton (Bantam Press) 

What does the widow of a man under suspicion for child abduction really know? And what is she prepared to share?

Friday on my Mind - Nicci French (Penguin)

Fifth in the fabulous Frieda Klein series, which starts with Blue Monday.


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