Crime Fiction Reviews: Gendered Crime?

I don’t believe in gender stereotypes, but it did occur to me that the last few crime/thriller novels had a bit of a gender bias in terms of subject matter. Written by women = psychological thriller; family, parenting and social issues. Written by men: violence, attacks, conspiracies, shadowy enemy (or everyone is an enemy), political agendas. I enjoy both types of subject matter, don’t consider one ‘better’ or ‘worthier’ than the other, and that’s why I alternate authors, genders and genres. I’m greedy, I want everything!

1974David Peace: 1974

I loved it and I hated it. It is very thought-provoking, a real fresco of the time and place (although just seen through the eyes of one character, which the author will remedy in the rest of the quartet). It is undeniably powerful and grim, perhaps too much so;  unrelentingly dark, so noir that not even a glimmer of hope or light comes through. And I say this as a huge fan of noir! I also found the staccato prose and swearing starts to grate after a while, although initially it is just perfect and captures the inflexions and nuances of Yorkshire speech patterns. But it’s worth remembering that this was Peace’s first novel, and that he keeps getting better and better.

Eddie Dunford, the main protagonist, is trying to make his mark as a crime correspondent. A right little prick he is too – using women, ready to cheat and lie and do anything to get ahead. But he is a bit out of his league with all the corruption and craziness going on around him. The story is (deliberately, I think) convoluted and often hard to understand, yet I can see how David Peace can become addictive.

Other male writers recently read: Matt Johnson – The Wicked Game. That too seemed filled with testosterone, hatred, machismo (nothing wrong with that).

tasteslikefearSarah Hilary: Tastes Like Fear

Sarah Hilary is fast becoming one of the most promising of new crime fiction writers (alongside other recent favourites like Mari Hannah, Eva Dolan and Stav Sherez). This is her third and perhaps most accomplished book to date. Everything just seems to come together in this one: perfectly-pitched plotting with alternating storylines (a device which has recently become so commonplace that it almost jars, but in this case it worked perfectly), atmospheric descriptions of a corner of London full of social contrasts, great observational skills and social commentary, occasional glimpses into the personal life of Marnie and Noah, the two main investigators, plus well-rounded characters, none of whom conforms to stereotype. I love the way Sarah Hilary takes topical subjects and makes you question every assumption or preconception you might have had.

This time the topic is about runaway teenagers and homelessness, vulnerability and visibility, anger and the need to feel loved/protected. Plus, what a great backdrop Battersea Power Station makes! (Oh, and Noah’s migraine suffering? Spot on, thanks for trying to explain to the rest of the world just how debilitating such an attack can be!)

whenshewasbadTammy Cohen: When She Was Bad

Many years ago, Anne Cater, American child psychologist, had to assess the impact of neglect and abuse on two small children in a horrific and notorious case which proved the making of the career of two of her (male) colleagues. Anne refused to go along with the consensus view and it seems she is now proved right, as one of the children went on to commit a horrifying deed in the UK in the present day. Just what it is and who it is – well, Tammy Cohen is teases us with the two strands of the story until the very end. This is one of those cases when the alternating between the two stories felt a little manipulative and intrusive (although they are both cracking stories in themselves).

The second strand is set in a workplace that will sound familiar to many. Kudos to the author for portraying so faithfully a place where targets, egos, ambitions, rivalries all are ripe fodder for resentment and murderous intent. A new boss soon creates a toxic atmosphere in a team in a recruitment consultancy. As distrust rises and tempers flare, matters are not improved by off-site bonding events (ah, yes, those dreaded things!). I have always wondered why there aren’t more novels set in the workplace, where we spend most of our lives, after all. But then I realised that it felt almost too familiar, it made me cringe with recognition – so perhaps there is not enough of an escapist element there. One small criticism would be that I felt the team members were selected especially to cover all bases (which is not the case in many workplaces, where there is a bit of clone effect in hiring): the gay man, the young ambitious guy, the stressed mother, the middle-aged woman cruising to retirement etc.

The other female writer was C.L. Taylor: The Missing, which I will review on CFL. The subject is very clearly domestic: the impact of a teenager’s disappearance on his family.

Now, when I talk about gender differences, I am not saying that the last two writers are ‘just’ women or treat ‘smaller’ subjects, but they do seem to have a more personal, immediate approach. Or perhaps I respond differently to them because I am a woman myself. Marnie and Anne are crusaders for truth just as much as Eddie in 1974, but there is less self-serving career advancement in their quest for justice, much more genuine concern for other people.

25 thoughts on “Crime Fiction Reviews: Gendered Crime?”

  1. Interesting – I hadn’t thought of those gendered differences, possibly because I read less modern crime nowadays. But when I was having my Scandicrime phase a few years back, there certainly was a different focus in say Helen Tunsten’s Inspector Irene Huss books when looked at next to the Wallanders.

    1. Yes, I’ve noticed that. Or Karin Fossum and Stieg Larsson. However, I have to admit that Scandinavian writers seem to be more concerned about social impact anyway… I wonder if a more ‘equal’ society for generations there has led to more of a convergence regarding topics and concern for impact on families and communities.

      1. Good thought – certainly I wouldn’t expect to find that ‘social’ aspect in crime fiction from other countries (though I probably haven’t read enough recent stuff to say that with any certainty!)

  2. I agree with you regarding the machismo element in both these books by men, also the other things you mention – shadowy international corporations, weaponry, etc. So very few women write spy novels, except for Stella Rimington, and it was her career. But I have read some pretty violent and gruesome crime fiction written by women, too! I really like David Peace – the Yorkshire Quartet is pretty grim, but then the 70s were! And the staccato style is very similar to James Ellroy – you really have to be in the mood for it. I enjoyed The Damned Utd, and I’ve got Red Or Dead here to read. Sarah Hilary’s I must get to too – I had a migraine yesterday (darkness, quiet, please) so I’ll be looking out for that description! She’s a real talent, though. Thought-provoking, Marina.

    1. Exactly – I also spotted the James Ellroy similarity – and in his interview at Quais du Polar David Peace said he admired Ellroy. I think much of his style is very auditive and made to be read aloud, so maybe I should read him more slowly to savour him. Very interesting writer in any case.
      The sample size here is very small, so not at all representative, but it got me wondering… It’s not so much the violence of the crime fiction that makes the difference, but rather that the impact is personal and visceral (and often involves family, friends, community) with women writers, while with men it’s more an abstract ‘global’ impact.

  3. A fascinating piece Marina although I haven’t read the book by David Peace , I have just read David Jackson’s A Tapping at my Door which dealt with a ‘bigger issue,’ like you I enjoy both but perhaps because I’m female I often can relate to the ‘domestic issues’ more readily?

    1. I usually hate broad generalisations, and I’m sure that there are plenty of exceptions (plus my sample size is tiny), but it just struck me as I was preparing my reviews that it is an interesting topic to debate.

  4. I do know what you mean by the darkness in Peace’s Red Riding series. I read the first two books in fairly quick succession, and while they’re both excellent, I felt rather worn down by the unrelenting bleakness. (With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that I really ought to have left a bigger gap between them.) Do you think you’ll continue with the series or has the first one put you off somewhat?

  5. That’s a really interesting point, Marina Sofia, about the kinds of books written by women and by men. Certainly these are examples of what you mean. And both sorts of novels can be equally atmospheric, and equally dark. It really all depends, perhaps, on what a story’s focus is. Lots of ‘food for thought’ here, so thanks.

    1. I may end up doing a review of this year’s crime reading, to see if this difference does hold true. It may only end up showing what kind of fiction I prefer (because I do tend to steer clear of things that are too macho), but it would be interesting to see if I notice this ‘self-absorption’ vs. ‘concern’ binomial.

  6. There are similar gender differences in Scandinavian crime. Jens Lapidus, for example, falls on the testosterone end of things. Jo Nesbo, too – lots of grand conspiracies and macho posturing, though with interesting character insight, too. The Millennium Trilogy is a fascinating mix – grand conspiracies, superherorics, comic book bad guys, and a strong feminist message. Pop culture material that is played with effectively, I think.

    For the other extreme, Camilla Lackberg’s stories are typically about grim crimes growing out of family dysfunction (while also playing up old-school gender norms in a Sweden that is nearly entirely white) and if you want to know who created all the psychological mayhem, it’s almost always traceable to mothers weren’t good at mothering. I’m so done with her books.

    But luckily there are lots of writers who can provide nuanced character development, broader-scale social commentary, and adrenaline without falling into gender stereotypes.

    On another note, have you read this interesting article about how reviews characterize women writers? Pretty fascinating.

    1. Thank you for your additional commentary, which shows just how much nuance and difference there is even in Scandinavian crime fiction (and I agree with you about Nesbo and Lackberg, for instance). And I did read that article – it was the thing which got me thinking about what I had been reading recently.

  7. I’ve read the full Red Riding quartet but have only ever written about this one for fear of making myself ill! They are really violent but in a necessary way. Dunford is detestable, but he tries to do the right thing in the end so you almost forgive him his bad behaviour. I don’t know whether this sort of writing is less accessible to women though, I know plenty of men who have found it difficult to stomach…The Ellroy similarities mentioned above are really noticeable so it may be the style rather than content that differentiates.

  8. I loved the David Peace Marina, but I do find it takes a while to get into the flow and rhythm of his writing. There was an excellent three part adaptation of the Red Riding series about 5 years back which is well worth checking out.

        1. I was very tempted to get Red or Dead, even though I don’t much care for football, because I do like Liverpool and it sounds like it’s much more about a man and his beliefs rather than football.

  9. I thought 1974 was excellent but bleak. No one is redeemable in this tale and dear, it doesn’t make to want to visit Yorkshire.

    1. Actually, Yorkshire is lovely and the people are wonderful and very warm and helpful. I had a great time in Sheffield, for instance. But he is talking about a particular period in time.

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