Monday, August 6, 2007

On "Visionary" Women in Crime Fiction

"...When it comes to killers and other criminals, the best visionaries these days are women, and foreign females in particular."
--Ed Siegel, Boston Globe

[Breaking News: Listen to WAMC, Northeast Public Radio, Tuesday August 7th at 10:07 a.m. to hear Neil Novack (Odyssey Books) talk about his five favorite summer reads (including Jan's "Yesterday's Fatal" or listen at See more at the end of this entry.]

HALLIE: Did anyone see book reviewer Ed Siegel's article in the Boston Globe, "Dial Ms. for Murder"? He extols the work of women(!) crime fiction writers who are bending the rules, writing more psychologically and sociologically complex characters, reaching less often for cliche.
In particular he praises the work of three foreign women authors--Natsuo Kirino, Zoe Heller, and Morag Joss. He says they are "so good that [Ruth] Rendell may no longer even be at the head of the class, even though all three are obviously indebted to her and the writer she's often paired with, the late Patricia Highsmith."

Such a pleasure to read his comments, after having been thoroughly discouraged by Patrick Anderson's "The Triumph of the Thriller," published in February, which devoted a scant 50 or so pages to women authors and classified Sue Grafton a thriller writer (huh?)

Do you think women approach the writing of crime fiction from a fundamentally different mindset than men? Are there American women crime fiction authors worthy of this kind of note? And what about Ruth Rendell, what makes her writing so exemplary? (When I interviewed Ian Rankin earlier this year, he said she's one of the authors he most admires precisely because of the complex characters she writes.)

JAN: I don't know. I've taken some heat from a few critics for my protaganist's dark side and her flawed character. Which, of course, has made me crazy. And another critic, a supporter of my work, told me she thought there was a double standard for mystery protagonists.

In other words, it was okay for male characters to be flawed and complex, but female sleuths had to above reproach. Just like women trying to break through in other fields, I guess. A few superficial flaws might be allowed, but nothing that went to the kinds of issues my poor Hallie Ahern struggles with.

I'm glad to hear someone is trumpeting complex female characters -- even if they are by foreign authors rather than homegrown. But I have to admit, for the most part, the complex mystery characters I've come across have been written by males. This may be because they have been better received. And I don't read the volume of mysteries you do, Hallie, so I (hopefully) am behind the times.

RO: So many issues have been raised here. I'm really not qualified to participate in this discussion (but I'll jump in anyway) because I don't read many thrillers - although we can write a whole other blog on the definition of thriller. We can also debate the definition of complex, and why some reviewers automatically give extra points to foreign writers. (Is it more complex to write "lorry" instead of "truck"? "Mac" instead of "raincoat"? Is Iceland intrinsically more complex than say, the Bronx?)

I write, and for the most part, read traditional mysteries.
In the last few books I've read the writer's focus is on the person solving the crime - professional or amateur - not the twisted SOB commiting the crime. For example, Julia Spencer Fleming does a brilliant job writing Clare and Russ that I feel I'm on a first-name basis with them. They are complex characters, no less complex because they live in a small New England town and aren't ferreting out terrorists, or deranged serial killers.

So is it progress that more women are writing twisted SOB killers? I guess. Does it make them more worthy of note? the guys who think women can only write lightweight yarns. But is there hope for those troglodytes anyway?

HANK: So let's take Lee Child. I've just finished two of his fantastically spare, smart, clever, taut and comandingly interesting thrillers. SO let's imagine you learned "Lee" is actually a woman. (It could happen, you know, like, um, Hank.)

Are you saying: oh, no, no way. Those books are clearly written by a man? I have to admit, don't kill me, just my opinion, I think they are obviously written by a man. (A man who can really write.)

Now let's take, and not only because Ro brought her up, the wonderful Julia. Another of my favorites. Okay, the conceit doesn't work as well here, but let's say you learned her real name was Spencer Fleming. A man. Would you be surprised that a man wrote the Clare and Russ books? I kind of would.

More favorites as examples: If you didn't know the authors, could you think a man wrote the deeply complex The Virgin of Small Plains? Could you think a woman wrote the complicated and surprising The Accidental Spy?

So is there something intrinsically male or female about what comes out on the page? (Come on, I know you can hit me with a million examples of books where you absolutely could not tell. Love to hear them. And why is that?)

There used to be--still are?--people who suggested women should use initials so the male mystery-buying public would not be put off thinking they were going to get "girly" stuff. (Hallie uses G.H. Ephron for her Peter Zak series, but was that because it was a pseudonym to include both you and your co-author?)

On the other hand, my photo is on my book covers. One reason: so buyers will know "Hank" is female.

PS. And yes, Ro, maybe Iceland is more complex than the Bronx. Unless you're from Iceland. Then the Bronx undoubtedly wins.

HALLIE: Interesting point. I wonder if there's anyone out there who can come up with big name male authors whose books could have been written by a female, and vice versa. S. J. Rozan?

Ro asks: Is it progress that more women are writing twisted SOB killers? I agree, that's not the point. But what is true is that the women writers Siegel praises aren't writing puzzle-driven mysteries in which the character seems to be dragging the plot forward. They're writing more complex character-driven stories.

And if we're building a panoply of Americans who are breaking the mold, add Carol O'Connell, S. J. Rozan, and Gillian Flynn.

Breaking News: Neil Novak, owner of The Odyssey Bookshop in S. Hadley, Mass. (The Berkshires) talks up Hallie Ahern and Jan's "Yesterday's Fatal," on WAMC, Northeast Public Radio, Tuesday (August 7th) at 10:07 a.m. when he discusses his five favorite summer reads. You can listen on the web at


  1. To Hallie's last question, I nominate P.J. Parrish, a sister team that features a male, protaganist, private detective Louis Kincaid. I read Island of Bones which definitely could have been written by a male. In fact, it astounded me how there was never a false or giveaway feminine note. It was an awesome book, by the way, plotwise as well as characterwise.

  2. So interesting, Jan.
    So readers, what would be a "giveaway feminine note"?