Are Women Crime Writers Deadlier Than The Male?

This article first appeared in The Mail on Sunday

I have spent the last few months saturated in the blood of young women. 

As I fall asleep I block out their screams. As I sit at my desk I avert my eyes from their mutilated bodies.

But before you send me to Broadmoor, these are not real murders. These bodies are buried in the pages of bestselling novels, read in preparation for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate this weekend, where I am chairing a debate called Deadlier Than the Male.

The debate asks whether women write the most violent crime fiction. My initial thoughts were no, look at Scandinavian crime fiction writers Jo Nesbø and Stieg Larsson, or Stuart MacBride, author of the Aberdeen-set Logan McRae thrillers, for work by men of eye-watering brutality.

But I have changed my mind. Not because of the manner of killing – it would be hard to compete with the inventions of Nesbø. But because of the sheer number of women inventing new and vicious ways to kill.

For every Jo, Stieg and Stuart, there are ten women stepping into the shoes of female crime writers Karin Slaughter, Tess Gerritsen, Chelsea Cain and Mo Hayder. And they are pushing boundaries with work that is getting nastier as a result. 

‘I read a novel by a woman a few weeks ago that really disgusted me it had such horrific violence,’ one male crime writer, whose name is frequently on the bestseller lists, has confided to me. Mindful of the storm of criticism that hit Ian Rankin when he spoke up about the level of violence meted out by female rivals, he asked not to be named.

He added: ‘I don’t know how some get away with it. There seems to be really gratuitous violence in many where the “M.O.” of the killer seems merely to be no more than an excuse to inflict all sorts of vicious torture on the victim.’

He is not alone in questioning whether we should call time on this explosion of ‘torture porn’.

‘You shouldn’t be making money by thinking of new ways to torture women,’ Lauren Henderson, whose books include Dead White Female and Kiss of Death, told me flatly. ‘How far do we have to go before someone says, “Enough.”?’

It is a good question. The murders peddled in mass-market fiction are enough to make a hardened forensic psychologist blanche. Take Jillianne Hoffman’s The Cutting Room, the third of her C.J. Townsend novels.

In it, a snuff club films young women being tortured – including anal rape and acid used to burn their faces and feet – before being murdered. Last year Hoffman published the equally gruesome Pretty Little Things, the cover of which shouts: ‘Tempted. Tortured. Trapped.’

Or Mari Hannah’s gripping début, The Murder Wall. It opens with a sickening account of the rape and murder of a young girl in a country church. Little is left to the reader’s imagination, from the roughness of the rapist’s hands to his victim urinating in fear as he unbuckles his belt.

Even those women whose work rises above the pack for its psychological depth and power don’t hold back from portraying graphic violence.

In The Retribution, the latest Tony Hill novel and number one bestseller from Val McDermid, after murdering a husband and wife as they have sex, an escaped psychopath rapes the woman as life seeps from her slashed throat.

Even the killer is repulsed. ‘He didn’t want to look at that wound and the almost severed head,’ Britain’s finest crime writer writes.

It is sickening stuff. But why do women write books in which we suffer horrific sexual violence when all the statistics show men are the biggest victims of violent crime? And, as women buy 80 per cent of these books, why do we read them in huge numbers?

The obvious answer is that sensation sells. These books dominate the bestseller lists. One author told me a publisher approached her to write, because they needed a female ‘high concept’ (publishing jargon for violent) thriller writer. ‘They said rivals were doing well in this market and they didn’t want to miss out. The gorier the better,’ she confided.

The choice by publishers of women writers – or in the case of Nicci French and Tania Carver, female names – is deliberate: women describing sexual violence against women is sharing a fear; men writing it risks being creepy.

Martyn Waites, who with his wife Linda writes the Tania Carver series, was told by a female horror writer he knows: ‘I’m glad your wife is writing these with you, because if they were just by you I would not want to know you, because what you write would mean you hate women.

‘Women writers empathise with the darkest fears of readers who seek reassurance’

Women writing in this genre deny they write to please the market. ‘We’re writing about murder for God’s sake,’ Val McDermid insists when I ask about the violence in her Tony Hill series. It is shocking, the critically acclaimed author maintains, because violence should be shocking.

McDermid believes strongly that women write and read these books because from childhood we are conditioned to be afraid. ‘We perceive violence differently from men,’ she explains. ‘From childhood we are taught if you walk down a dark street you risk being raped or worse. We fear the sound of footsteps, men don’t.’

Women writers empathise with the darkest fears of readers who seek reassurance that, not only is it possible to survive, but that the rule of law will prevail, she claims. It is a strong argument.

Sophie Hannah agrees. Over seven novels she has built a reputation for unflinching descriptions of rape, murder and torture (in one the heroine is force-fed gravel: no details of its journey in and out of her body is spared). ‘For me a good book is one that shows that horrible things can happen, but bad as they are life doesn’t have to end after them,’ she claims.

If this is true, these novels have a similar role to childhood fairy tales. Substitute the imperilled heroine for a princess, a serial killer for the dragon and a maverick cop for the knight in shining armour and these stories are revealed to be as much Grimm as grime.

Forensic psychologist Dr Kerry Daynes, who acts as a police consultant on murder cases, agrees. ‘They are all variations on the stories we were told as children,’ she observes. ‘Good overcomes evil. Order is restored.’

But she remains uncomfortable at the imagination invested in crimes that in real life are so rare their perpetrators – the Wests, Hindley and Brady, Ted Bundy and Harold Shipman – assume the status of bogeymen. ‘I think they can be accused of perpetuating women’s fear of violence,’ she adds.

There is, she believes, an element of ‘torture porn’ to the worst of these books: they titillate readers in much the same way as ‘mummy porn’ – which is read by the same demographic of women over 35. ‘There is an appetite for it and I think crime writers are fully aware of that appetite and write for their audience,’ she contests.

No such sensibilities will stop publishers exploiting this market however. The genre is by far the most lucrative in books. As we have seen with misery memoirs, which tipped deeper and deeper into the sickest depictions of child abuse in order to gain the attention of gluttonous readers, and we are starting to see with the flood of badly written erotica pumped into the market in the wake of 50 Shades Of Grey, when publishers spot an insatiable appetite for something, they are willing to go to any lengths to supply demand.

‘I have seen stuff that is pretty sick and turned it down,’ says one leading literary agent.

‘But that is because it was so badly written. There was no plot, character or depth. It is just one person rushing about doing terrible things.’ If the book had been better written, would she have represented it? ‘Probably, yes,’ she replies matter-of-fact.

The word ‘porn’ implies poor writing. But many of the women who dominate this field are great writers. In fact, I believe a reason women overcome the gore is that the likes of Cain, Hayder and Slaughter are compelling storytellers.

But is the high – mutilated – body count necessary? No, says Mark Bilingham. ‘I used to think that keeping the violence off the page was a cop-out,’ he says. ‘Increasingly though, it seems to me that you can keep the majority of the violence off the page and still have a book every bit as powerful.’

Accusation of ‘torture porn’ disturbs Martyn Waites. ‘I would not be happy with anything we wrote that read like that,’ he insists.

Like many in the genre, Waites and his wife Linda draw on real crime for inspiration – The Surrogate was inspired by murders of pregnant women in the US. Rapist Michael Sams, who murdered Julie Dart and kidnapped Stephanie Slater, inspired The Creeper.

But, he claims, the last thing the two want is to fetishise evil. ‘We don’t want these to read like fairy tales,’ he maintains. ‘We want to acknowledge there are dangers out there, but not imply that they are, like the monster outside the village, no one’s responsibility.’

He adds with no hint at a double meaning: ‘These are all our monsters. We’ve created them ourselves.’

As a woman I think he is right: the fears of women have helped create these monsters by making them lucrative bestsellers. But just because we have an appetite for fear, does not mean, I believe, that we should feed it such strong meat. Because as crimes become ever more grotesque we risk becoming inured not just to acts of evil but their impact on the victim as well.

© Danuta Kean 2012


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2 Responses to “Are Women Crime Writers Deadlier Than The Male?”

Adam LeBor says:

A great article, thanks Danuta. I occasionally review thrillers for The Economist and the FT, which means I am on lots of publishers’ mailing lists. I get countless books with knives, blood and dismembered bodies on the cover, with accounts of gruesome murders and violence, sometimes with child victims. I throw most of them in the bin. I am not a puritan but I do believe that this continual gore-fest – sadistically detailed, precise, anatomical – does not only reflect the violence in our society but also feeds it…

    Danuta Kean says:

    Thanks Adam. I agree completely. It feels gratuitous and encourages a baseless sense of fear among people – women especially – that makes me feel they are instruments of oppression in much the same way Fox News and the rhetoric of the War on Terror.