Strike: The Cuckoo's Calling
Strike: The Cuckoo's Calling

BOOKS

Can thrillers really be feminist?

The treatment of women and women’s bodies in crime fiction has long been problematic, says Anna James. Is that finally beginning to change?

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By Anna James on

There is a dead woman. She is bloodied and battered. She’s probably naked, she’s almost definitely beautiful. A ruggedly handsome detective with a dark past stands over her and shakes his head at the sadness of it all. A steely look enters his eyes as he resolves to avenge this horrible waste of female flesh.

The above may read as sarcasm, but it’s an all too familiar opening for the crime genre. All stats seem to show that thrillers are overwhelmingly read by women and yet we still have to regularly negotiate the uncomfortable or downright problematic treatment of women and women’s bodies. But, increasingly, people are saying enough is enough. The team adapting Robert Galbraith/JK Rowling’s Cormoran Strike books for TV have recently publicly criticised the “voyeuristic level of violence against women” in TV dramas. And, when it comes to books, there is an increasingly noisy collection of female characters wielding axes, cocktails and secrets, and an ever-deepening pool of writers questioning whether there’s another way to explore our darkest fears without having to sacrifice any feminist principles.

There’s still a strangely intense fascination with women who write crime and thrillers; still regular thinkpieces, even documentaries, where women writing about violence are treated a little like dogs walking on their hind legs. It smacks uncomfortably close to the rather Victorian belief that women couldn’t be surgeons because of their constitutions, as if dealing with blood coming out your vagina once a month would make you more, rather than less, squeamish. And, despite this, more and more male writers are writing under genderless or even outright female names. Author Martyn Waites describes the books he writes as himself as “more complex, more metaphorical, the kind of things things I like in writing” whereas (although it’s unclear if these are Waites or the journalist's words) when he writes as Tania Carver, the books are “simpler” and “more mainstream”.

The best thrillers don’t deny the female condition, but hit the sweet spot between exploiting real-life victims for cheap thrills and turning a novel into a morality play

Last year, Terrence Rafferty wrote a piece for The Atlantic called “Women Are Writing The Best Crime Novels”. The title of the article is deceptively positive and, among his praise for specific books, the piece is full of frustrating, patronising assumptions about female writers and readers. Even though it’s male writers choosing to write under female pseudonyms, apparently it’s “a bunch of very crafty girls” sneaking in, redefining the genre. On the subject of recent megahits like The Girl On The Train, Rafferty goes on to explain that “writers of the current school tend to favour a volatile mixture of higher-pitched first-person tones: hectoring, accusatory, self-justifying, a little desperate. Reading these tricky 21st-century thrillers can be like scrolling through an especially heated comments thread on a web site of wandering unaware into a Twitter feud”. Leaving aside that the horrors of comment threads or Twitter trolls are distinctly male-dominated, the language used here shows that, even very loosely masquerading as praise, there’s a deep discomfort with the way women have changed the crime and thriller market.

But, as with many things, peel away the layer of men making things weird (#notallmen) and you have a lot of women (and some men) getting on with actually interrogating what writing a feminist thriller really means. Erin Kelly’s latest book, He Said/She Said, revolves around a Ched Evans-esque rape trial, after a couple see what appears to be a sexual assault during an eclipse at a festival. The book grew from the idea of a crime taking place during an eclipse, not the desire to write a feminist thriller, but as Kelly says, “It must be feminist, because I’m getting emails from Men’s Rights Activists telling me that I’m a rabid man-hater.”

Kelly’s book explores sexual assault head-on; it’s at times a difficult book to read, but it shows that thrillers can tackle these things without slipping into gratuitous descriptions of violence against women. “The best thrillers don’t deny the female condition, but hit the sweet spot between exploiting real-life victims for cheap thrills and turning a novel into a morality play. I agonised over using an allegation of rape as a plot device,” Kelly says. “More so than I ever have when writing a murder. But for every sensitive, thoughtful examination of rape in fiction there are literally thousands of raped and murdered and mutilated women whose victimhood is little more than a plot device. I knew I was treading on eggshells, but I walked with incredible care. I researched this book more thoroughly than anything else I’ve ever written.”

Ruth Kenley-Letts, the executive producer for Strike, said “great efforts had been taken to treat the crimes against female victims with sensitivity on screen” and it’s something book editors are increasingly sensitive too as well. “It’s a tough one,” Sam Eades, a commissioning editor at Orion, says. “It’s important for fiction to reflect the society we live in – and violence against women happens to those we love and care abou – but that’s not to say I wouldn’t love to read a thriller that explored the world how it could be, not just as it is now.” Alison Hennessey, a commissioning editor for crime at Bloomsbury, has issued a blanket ban on books that start with the rape or murder or a woman being investigated by a male detective: “There are enough of these books out there already, and enough violence in the world, frankly, that I’m not interested in contributing more to that unless the book was doing something to explore why this happens.”

I think any novel that makes the reader think seriously about the fact that women still cannot move through the world with the same ease as men can be read as feminist

I can’t help but think of the people who defend the level of sexual violence in Game Of Thrones by saying it’s historically realistic, or that’s just what would have happened in a society like that, even though it’s a society where there is also magic and dragons. Art in whatever form is important because it lets us explore how we feel and react to the real world, and yet it is fiction – it does not have to do or be anything. But if fiction is where we explore life, thrillers are where we explore fear. They arguably don’t work if they’re not tense, uncomfortable reads. I had to stop reading He Said/She Said at several points to calm down, and I worked myself up into a righteous fury reading Little Deaths by Emma Flint – but at what was going on in the story, not because of the way the writer was handling it. “I don’t know a single woman who has never been made to feel threatened or afraid,” Flint says. “Our real-life experience gives an extra frisson of terror to reading about a woman being followed home, a woman who has a stranger sit next to her in an otherwise empty train carriage. We are used to being afraid that we will become victims.”

So, it’s not that these subjects shouldn’t be tackled in thrillers (as Kelly says, “I read this shit on my phone every day – not to explore it is just another kind of silencing”) – it’s how to skirt a very delicate line without tipping into gratuitous and exploitative presentations. How do you write a book about people doing awful misogynistic things without writing an awful misogynistic book? There’s no easy checklist of how to make a thriller feminist, and everyone has their own definition of what that means. But, as Kelly says: “I think any novel that makes the reader think seriously about the fact that women still cannot move through the world with the same ease as men can be read as feminist. Sometimes the authorial intent to write a feminist novel is clear, but with crime fiction it’s more of a Trojan horse. Big Little Lies arguably got more women examining their prejudices about domestic abuse than a Guardian editorial.”

Here are a few of our favourite feminist thrillers to try:

The Power by Naomi Alderman

It would be impossible to not mention the book that won this year’s Baileys Prize. A tense, blistering, darkly humorous look at what might happen if women suddenly became the physically stronger sex. It’s impossible to read it without interrogating your own perspective on gender.

Little Deaths by Emma Flint

A startlingly insightful, intelligent read about the way society closes its walls against women who are not what they are asked to be and the way the patriarchy is terrified by the women it cannot control, and how far it will go to reassert that control.

He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly

A pageturner that tackles sexual assault head-on. When a couple witness what seems to be a rape during an eclipse, they get embroiled in a court case and the lives of the two people affected. It always puts plot and character first, but isn’t afraid to interrogate how we decide who we believe and who to trust.

Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce

Coming out next month, this scratches at the edge of the genre, as there is no trail of bodies or plot twists. Instead, it’s a tight, intense portrait of one woman’s psychological state as she tries to leave behind the legacy of a horrifying act she committed as a 12-year-old. A sharp literary read about guilt and anger.

Out by Natsuo Kirino

From one extreme to the other, this shocking, violent crime novel follows four female friends working together in a factory who band together to try and cover up the murder by one of them of their abusive husband, and things escalate from there. One for readers who like their biting feminist commentary with some dismemberment.

The Woman Who Ran by Sam Baker

While it’s a little awkward to mention a book by the co-founder of the site, a list of feminist thriller recommendations would be incompletely without this modern take of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. Not quite a retelling, but playing with Brontë’s themes of gossip, broken relationships and carving out your own identity.

@acaseforbooks

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Strike: The Cuckoo's Calling
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