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Crime fiction is routinely accused of misogyny, but a new group of female novelists are trying to change the genre for the better.
I'm sat at the back of a room in Shoreditch Town Hall in London. Around me are more than 50 women—mainly in their 40s and 50s, with soccer mom hair and Bloomingdale's wardrobes—frantically jotting down notes. "If there's no blood and guts, I'm not going to convinced there's been a murder," a speaker advises. "You need at least one dead body... preferably multiple."
Welcome to London's first crime writing festival, organized by all-female writing collective Killer Women. The group started a few years ago as a way for writers to combat the loneliness that comes from the isolation of fiction writing, and has grown into something much bigger since: a 16-strong group of writers, with The Girl on the Train bestselling novelist Paula Hawkins among them. Statistically, books by men are more likely to get reviewed, but women dominate crime fiction. Of the hundreds of people I see at Killer Women's event, less than ten are men. Women buy 80 percent of the 21 billion crime books sold every year. We outnumber both male writers and readers in the genre, lapping up books about serial killers, rape, and psychological torment.
"I've killed men, women, children, and animals," says Melanie McGrath, the co-founder of Killer Women. McGrath has been writing for 20 years, starting out as a journalist and writing non-fiction as well as novels. "The genre of crime allows you to say almost anything and explore emotions that—particularly as a woman—are not acceptable to explore: rage, revenge and feelings of injustice... and it allows you to give the bad guys their comeuppance."
It's not just that freedom that lures in female wannabe writers—there's also an argument that women are better at crime writing than men. "We're programmed 'don't go out in the dark,' 'pay attention to footsteps behind you,' 'get away from them as quickly as possible,' 'don't put yourself in any danger,'" says Colette McBeth, a Killer Women member who pens psychological thrillers. "There's a lot more inherent fear for women [when it comes to personal safety] and we bring that to writing."
Despite this, McGrath and Killer Women co-founder Louise Millar feel like women's voices aren't always acknowledged or celebrated. "I was talking to author Martina Cole," says McGrath. "Every week this century, £75,000 has been spent on her books, but when I asked her, 'Do you find it easy to own your success?' she said, 'No.' It's much easier to say 'Killer Women are marvelous' than it is to say, 'I'm marvelous.''
While women writers are riding high, female characters often don't fare so well. In the past, crime writing has been accused of misogyny, and many of the speakers at the Killer Women festival reiterate that readers are only interested in crime fiction where there's murder—and that readers are often only really interested in the grisly murder of female victims. Casting women as the targets of violent crime is, in some ways, accurate—according to the FBI, 70 percent of serial killer victims are female. But critics say that women in crime fiction often act as faceless plot devices used to explore the minds of serial killers.
The bookshop at the Killer Women Crime Writing Festival. Photo by Stephen Millar, courtesy of Killer Women
"In a lot of crime drama on TV and in a lot of books, women are just there as a token victim," says McBeth. She says that while killing off women is sometimes unavoidable as a plot device, it's important that the victims are given a voice, otherwise readers become numb to violence. "The women are often just a foil to some psychopathic man who's on the rampage. You see that a lot in television dramas and I just think, 'Do they all sit around and think of ways to kill women in more and more violent methods?'"
When she included a murder in her latest book, McBeth wanted to avoid adding to the stream of nameless victims. She says she actively gave the character a meaningful backstory that led to her, in some ways, "solving the crime." It's also one of the reasons Killer Women decided to pick Shoreditch Town Hall as the venue for their festival. The creepy Victorian building is where the inquest was held for Mary Kelly, the last victim of infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper. The Women wanted to draw as much attention to Kelly as Jack gets from 'Ripper Tours' and Ripper tourism.
Add the high female death counts generally found in crime writing to the fact writers often lavish attention on their gruesome endings, and you have a toxic combination. Take TV show The Fall: its victims are usually beautiful girls in panties being chased around by a male serial killer. The sexualization of murder is something that historical crime writer and Killer Woman D.E. Meredith finds "morally dodgy."
I have to say I'm increasingly enjoying writing vengeful female murderers. I like it when you can think, 'I would do the same.'
"I have picked up books by female writers and literally chucked them at the wall," she says. "I remember reading one book and there was such a horrible rape scene, and I thought, 'Oh my god, this has been written by a woman and I don't even want this in my head,' but then it comes down to taste, as well. I don't believe in censorship, but I don't like violence that's salacious.'
While female deaths are described with vivid bloodlust, McGrath says it is just as bad that male victims are usually interchangeable. "There are books like gangster thrillers that have huge body counts, where men just go down like dominoes," she says. "Sometimes society and readers care less about male victims, and that's obviously unfair."
That's not to say that the Killer Women shy away from gruesome fiction. Meredith previously worked for NGOs like the Red Cross and has seen horrifying things in real life, which she brings to her books. "I've seen lots of dead people and I've been in lots of morgues, and I've been in lots of hospitals where there have been bombing and shelling attacks," she says. Her novels are written through the eyes of a 19th century forensic scientist, and she goes into detail about the reality of autopsies at the time. "I've had readers say it's too visceral and unpleasant, but if I toned it down I'd be doing the character a disservice because that's what he does and that's what he's interested in."
Book bloggers Ayo Onatade and Isabel Costello speak on a panel. Photo by Stephen Millar, courtesy of Killer Women
Meredith explains that crime writing isn't just about imagining blood and guts—it's also empathizing with the murderer. "Quite often the killer is the character that the writer is most attracted to," she says. "None of us are without weakness, sadistic tendencies, or cruelty. When I was growing up I used to be really mean to this girl—god knows what happened to her—and I still feel guilty about it. That was a really nasty part of my character. As writers we're interested in characters who show that part of humanity in a way that makes readers think, 'In the right situation I might behave like that.'"
Since the success of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and its female antihero, there's been an interest in the ways women can harm and hurt. The book, along with The Girl on the Train, has created a demand for psychological thrillers and "domestic noirs," in which women explore the challenges and injustices of domestic life with occasionally murderous consequences. In fact, male writer S.K. Tremayne has written about being encouraged by his publisher to choose a name that was ambiguous—right now, it's better to be female in the crime writing industry.
It's no surprise that books which flip the crime fiction trope of the female victim are growing in popularity. A lot of the Killer Women themselves talked about using writing to seek revenge against the injustices of the real world, especially those committed by men.
It's something that Alison Joseph, Killer Women member and former chair of the Crime Writing Society, feels all too strongly. The writer is now developing a series of books that recasts Agatha Christie as a detective; her previous protagonist was a crime-solving nun. "I have to say I'm increasingly enjoying writing vengeful female murderers," she adds. "I like it when you can think, 'I would do the same.'"
While some crime writing has its flaws, she adds, it also allows for deeply feminist characters: Complex female killers, steely cops, and victims with three-dimensional stories. We shouldn't write off all gruesome fiction as sexist, she argues.
"Sometimes even the most graphic novels can end up talking about the problem of evil really well," she says. "It's a real problem, when people are lapping up extraordinarily violent serial killer stories when really they are in their hearts wanting to think about the problem of evil. You could say crime fiction which skips over the violence is actually dishonest."
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