Women and Crime Fiction

This year, I read a lot of crime fiction by women and/or featuring exciting female characters. It happened somewhat by design and somewhat by stumbling upon interesting recommendations.

Earlier, I have been so obsessed with Scandanavians and Japanese, that while I had read these English language writers, in fact had even liked some, but never went back to. Now I like to think I have achieved a nice balance between the Norse and the English speaking world.

These are not recommendations as such. Some of them, I have liked, some I loved, some I bought only because I was in a mood of a read-alike, some were cheap buys.

I am not sure if it is fair to group these together just because they are women, but I am doing it because together, they certainly point to the brilliant surge of popular writing and reading of crime fiction in women, that has demolished the traditional male bastion of suspense thrillers. Another post is required on this grand trend of women claiming crime fiction as their own after being limited to stereotypical drama or Romance Fiction .

Here goes:

1. Tana French:

Tana French

Tana French


Author of the lyrical, fairy-tale like and intense Dublin Murder Squad novels, her detectives belong in an English lit. department rather than a murder squad. Her language wants me to lick the words off the pages. She writes eloquently about close friendships and people’s unrequited emotions. I connected with her characters’ obsessive desire to free themselves in escapist world. Reading her books will put you in a dense mood where words will prick you in eyes like a dust that wouldn’t wash away.

2. Gillian Flynn:

Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn


Ah, I Love-Hate her with equal gusto. I read all her books biting my cuticles and cursing and admiring her at the same time. Her writing is sharp, biting, clever with complex female characters. She has a cynical sense of humour that strums your own wry heart. But she does fall prey to stereo-typing and under all that clever style and twisted plotting, the books are as conventional as a Quintin Tarantino character. She is the latest best-seller what with her Gone Girl being made into a movie and has been a great booster for clever suspense fiction with interesting women characters.

3. Megan Abbott:

Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott


Along with Flynn, she is the it-girl of modern noir, what with movie remakes featuring Natalie Portman and all. Cynical, drenched in dark emotions, and poetic, she shares the problematic stereotyping with Flynn. She specialises in teen girl friendships gone wrong, to put in crudely, and her books, under all that awesome philosophy about growing up , are nothing but extremely well written versions of Single White Female, rather than Heavenly Creatures.

4. Kate Atkinson:

Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson

Her characterisation is so vivid that you feel like you are breathing the same air with them. But the plot and motive of the three books I read, was mediocre at best. I am not sure I would have bought the third Jackson Brodie book if it wasn’t cheap.

5. Chelsea Cain:

Chelsea Cain

Chelsea Cain

Thomas Harris meets James Patterson, Cain writes about serial killer Gretchen Cowell, who is described ‘beautiful’ so many times in the book that I wanted to twist her nose and deform her just to get that out of the way. Gretchen could have been interesting if Ms. Cain was not obsessed with her beauty and had not confused Hannibal Lecter for Sharon Stone midway. But, they are fast reads, with interesting reporter Sarah Ward thrown in along with detective Archie, the classic anguished detective.

6. Nicci French:

Nicci French

Nicci French

Psychiatrist Frieda Klein loves to walk London streets in the night. That won me over and I did forgive the slightly clichéd tense atmosphere of the series, or the totally unbelievable antagonists. Again, worth trying it out, although the contrived naming of the novels with Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday is a bit silly.

7. Louise Penny:

Louise Penny

Louise Penny

Love her quaint Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries set in Canada, reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s closed-door ones. Only five people were in the room and one of them was murdered. Which one amongst the four did it? Obviously the most improbable one. The plot and the conclusions are quite thin, frankly, but like Agatha Christie, it really doesn’t matter in the end.

8. Lionel Shriver:

Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver

We need to talk about Kevin and the phenomenal Lionel Shriver who makes her words and sentences and pages and chapters creep upon you to silently and so subtly that you are ready to believe your puppy as a chief conspirator in 26/11 bombings. I read her other not so celebrated books, Big Brother and Female of the Species. While not as good as We Need to Talk About Kevin, they delight with the same sharp prose, acute observations and mundane details that held together can destroy things.

9. Sophie Hannah:

Sophie Hannah

Sophie Hannah


I am not sure what I make of her. She is definitely the queen of the minutiae, and maybe I am impatient, but when someone revels so much in minor details, I do expect a creepier outcome, which she fails to do. She is still a very engaging and fast writer.

10. Denise Mina:

Denise Mina

Denise Mina

Her Garnethill series is quite engaging but I am not sure if I weaned off it by the end of the third novel and am not sure if I want to invest time in the fourth book. What truly stands out is her protagonist, Maureen, who is mentally ill, and thus provides a totally unique perspective to PI.

I also read some one-off novels. The Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison was touted as the next Gone Girl, but it is thankfully different and quite good. It tells the story of a marriage gone wrong in painful, everyday detail that sometimes make you feel wonder about your marital bliss!! The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly

Erin Kelley

Erin Kelley

was a mediocre read- alike for Donna Tartt’s
Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt

magnificent Secret History. Sister by Rosamund Lupton
Rosamund Lupton

Rosamund Lupton

tells a story about a straight-jacketed woman investigating suspicious death of her bohemian sister. The premise is nothing short of phenomenal possibilities. But it turns out that the bohemian sister is so obnoxiously pretentious that I was actually glad someone bonked her off, so I guess that is a major thumbs down. The Husband’s Secret started out supremely well, and I thought would rip off the suburban- mom- bliss stereotype, but it rather reconfirmed it. I gagged at the moral of the story that if you have kids, you are excused to do anything, even murder. It features the pro to-typical smug moms and parents who believe having kids is your passport to heaven. Laura Lippman is a very good writer, but somehow she doesn’t stay with me. Before I go to Sleep by S.J. Watson plays with the amnesia the oldest trick in suspense fiction. The twist is mindblowingly good. Into the Darkest Corner is a well-told story of a psychotic stalker boyfriend from hell. What distinguishes it is the female protagonist, who is thankfully not the Sati Savitri that most stalker books/ movies a la Sleeping with The Enemy feature. She is quite difficult to like/ relate to in fact, which makes her victimhood all the more challenging for readers. Fred Vargas’s The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, that won this year’s CWA dagger with the pukeworthy Alex was quirky, but that was about it for me.

I am reading Barbara Vine-

Ruth Rendell/ Barbara Vine

Ruth Rendell/ Barbara Vine

pen name for Ruth Randell. I had read Randell long time back but hadn’t thought of looking out for her Vine books, which are more psychological and dark. Now I am happy to have found them again.

And while it is not crime fiction, I am also reading the latest Youth sensation The Divergent series by Veronica Roth. Beatrice, a 16 year old misfit in Dystopian Chicago can not fit in with any of the pre-ordained fractions, which is bad news for her. Because if you don’t fit in, then you are basically homeless. I am halfway through and I am mildly loving it. The premise of ‘fitting-in’ is very relatable to everyone. The writing is simple in a good way. I am beginning to feel the story getting off track with too much action, but maybe that is because it is aimed at teens. It is a worthy successor to Hunger Games series.

The author Veronica Roth is 24 years old. Which wants me to jump off my balcony, frankly. But then Barbara Vine is 82, which makes me feel better.

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Lady Detectives Part 2: The Scandinavians

What is it about Scandinavians writing about gruesome crime that sets them apart, above all the violence drenched world, at the very top of the murder ladder? There are some first class crime fiction from every corner of the world out there, but the Scandanavians kick collective ass when it comes to stories of blood and guts.

Is it the densely dark atmosphere and snowy landscape and morose environment? Is it the fact that since in reality there is so little crime there that the Scandinavians’ imagination is more fertile when it comes to fictionalising it? Is it their innate sense of justice and fairness that finds voice in crime fiction?

Whatever it is, as far as I am concerned, there is nothing that comes even remotely close to Scandinavians when it comes to spinning moody and beautiful yarns about the evil corners of humanity.

What also sets them apart is their very liberal and progressive voice that challenges our notions of what constitutes crime and criminals. Women in Scandinavian countries are perhaps better off than any other region in the world, and it is reflected very well in their crime fiction.

So without further ado, moving on to my favourite scandi heroines.

detective inspector huss
golden calf
glass devil

1. Inspector Irene Huss ( Helene Turnsten)

Irene Huss is a tough cookie. A martial arts champion and mother of two, the beauty of the books is the way her domestic life co-exists peacefully with her action packed professional one. Irene is also very matter of fact about a middle-aged woman’s desires and occasional fantasies. Apart from brilliant characterisation, the novels also have a charming sense of humour.

black path

blood spiltsavage altaruntill thy wrath
2. Advocate Rebeka Martinsson ( Asa Larsson)

Rebeka is very nordic dark and the novels are set in Kiruna the northernmost city of Sweden. Filled with images of endless snow, crippling cold and magical northern lights, Rebeka’s troubled past and her propensity to keep life at distance make for a mood drenched reading.

dragont

girlfire

hornets nest
3. Lisbeth Salander ( Stieg Larsson)
What is there to be said about Salander? The girl who put a spotlight on scandi thrillers is still impactful, albeit little male fantasy a la Lara Croft.

1222

anne holt
4. Hanne Wilhelmsen ( Anne Holt)

Hanne is anti-social with a capital A and very difficult to like. The novels are admittedly not brilliant, and it is the character of Hanne , who is gay, which saves them from being mediocre.
drowning

hidden child

iceprincess

lost boy

stonecutter

stranger

5. Erica Flack ( Camilla Lackberg)

Erica is a writer with a nosy streak that always lands her smack in the middle of investigations by her boyfriend/ husband Patrick. The couple is adorable and the novels are rich in detail about their lives as young parents, postpartum depression, sibling rivalry.

linda wallander
6. Linda Wallander ( Henning Mankell)

Linda is the great Kurt Wallnder’s daughter and has the moroseness to match. There is only one book featuring her in the lead role , I wonder why? Linda is one of the most important characters in Wallander universe and as the books progress, she comes across as a meaningful person on her own, not just his daughter. Looking at the delicious neuroses of her famous father, her character could have become more fully sketched on her own.

ashes

day is dark

my soul

7. Thora Gundmundsdottir( Yrsa Sigurdardottir)

If you can pronounce the names in the Icelandic series, you will be pleasantly surprised by the lighthearted sense of humour and spirit of bonhomie in the novels.

meet me malmo

murdermalmo
8. Inspector Anita Sundstrom ( Torquil Macleod)

A relatively new entry to the bloodthirsty scnadi ladies, Anita is tough and brilliant, with an unfortunate propensity to fall in love with wrong men.Get couple of these books and loose yourself in the colour of red- the white snowly landscape just makes it better..

Lady Detectives Part 1: Non Scandanavians

shakespeare
I have been a crime junkie ever since I remember. And by that I mean crime fiction junkie.
mahabharata
Any book with murder in it, I am willing to give it a shot. My whole obsession with Dostoyevsky started because of the murder and violence in his novels,ditto with Shakespeare and Mahabharata and virtually all the greek classics!! ( This is what comes of an elite education!! You like Jacobeans over romantics because of sex and violence, or the lack thereof!!)
crime-and-punishment-kill

Mystery / suspense genre is perhaps one of the most popular and intriguing genres of fiction since the beginning of the printed word. It has also been traditionally considered one of the most low-brow. Not that it matters to the hardboiled readers. But reading crime has never been considered a literary pursuit, so to speak.

It has been changing somewhat steadily. For one, cultural studies and cultists literally changed the way popular culture is being seen.

I also think in last fifteen to twenty years, crime fiction has really burst forth with many voices, genre breaking characters, plots that delve deeply into the psyche and stories that challenge the smug contentment in society.

But whatever the development be, what it boils down is the way readers are drawn to the dark murderous atmosphere, complex murderers, psychological plumbing, wading through scattered clues -intensely addictive.

I especially love women detectives. Call it a vicarious wish fulfilment. My roomie in college was studying for IPS, did clear it and became a cop eventually. She was my idol. Every now and then I imagine myself to be this hardheaded detective catching mass murderers and nabbing intellectual terrorists. Smoking cigarettes, drinking a neat bourbon and brooding over some dark past of my own. A sympathetic boss and dozens of jerks complicating investigations. Twists and turns that spin the overly stimulated head.

Jokes apart, Women detectives are sort of inherently interesting because crime is generally associated with men. The violence and desire to break society’s rules are also considered to be male characteristic. How do we place women as the hunter and not the hunted? What are the unique qualities and values women bring to get justice served? How do the very concepts of justice and victimization change when women are part of justice system?

Following are detectives that I really enjoy, and by that I mean I read them several times even now. Superb repeat value. They resonate with me. I discover things about them every time I read. And also that they are not some Angelina Jolie type superwomen ( though there is nothing wrong with that as well), but rather real people who happen to be women detectives.

(Since I am mildly obsessed with scandanavian crime and it simply has some of the best female investigators there are, I am going to dedicate the next post exclusively to them. )

silence of the lambsHannibal_1999_Book_Cover
1. FBI Agent Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs/ Hannibal ( Thomas Harris)

It is a cliché, but Starling is really an outstanding character. A brilliant FBI agent in making, an orphan with penchant for pursuing justice and fairness, someone who is tired of the world’s hypocrisy, an earnest youth who can not let things be if she can help it. Thomas Harris is really a god when it comes to aesthetic violence and Starling, to me is far more complex than his most celebrated character Dr. Hannibal Lecter. I like Starling in the book Hannibal too. Her failure to play by the rules, her gradual disappointment with the system, her moral values and her bravery are more grown up and cynical in this second book. Thomas Harris is brutal with the criticism of sexism that thwarts her career and makes her into a pawn in larger game. I also agree with her ( SPOILERS) becoming a cannibal and runaway from justice. But she is still sort of secondary character to Lecter in this one, and it is a bit disappointing in that respect.

the likenessinthewoods

2. Detective Cassie Maddox in In The Woods and The Likeness( Tana French)

Cassie has a fabulous sense of irony and as an undercover detective turned murder detective, she is uniquely placed. She is brilliant, sensitive, almost lyrical. She is also little troubled and behaves with abandon that lands her often in trouble. She is one of the most original detectives I have ever come across.

Tana French’s prose is really beautiful and you feel like just uttering her words aloud for the sheer pleasure of it. Her novels , true to the modern crime fiction , focus more on characters and atmosphere than a traditional whodunit.

miss marple
3. Miss Marple ( Agatha Christie)

Good old Miss Marple. Agatha Christie is like comfort food for me and I often read Marple when I am feeling down. Her common sense, her old maid beliefs and the atmosphere of ole English village are superb. I also think it was quite brave of Christie to come up with such an unusual character as a detective. Marple is no feminist, rather she is extremely conservative in her belief that characters remain the same no matter what their circumstances. But there are shades of whimsey and taking a piss at prevalent society there which I adore.

resolutiongarnethillexile

4. Maureen O’donell in Garnethill novels (Denise Mina)

Maureen is mentally ill but that doesn’t stop her from being dangerously inquisitive. In the first novel of the series, she is sort of forced to investigate a grisly murder, but in later novels, it is her curiosity that leads her in dark alleys of crime. This series was a real shock to me because seriously mentally ill people rarely come across as investigators, they play roles of victims or killers, unfortunately. Denise Mina also has a sparse and cynical way with words which I adore. Her other female investigator Paddy Meehan is also quite good, but I read her at a particularly bored point and she didn’t do anything for me then. Maybe I should read again to see.

stephanie plum
5. Stephanie Plum novels ( Janet Evanovitch)

Stephanie is hilarious and she is a bounty hunter. The series is chuckle a para funny, not great as a whodunit, but funny.

real world
grotesque-natsuo-kirino
out
6. Natsuo Kirino is a brilliant writer who writes about women, crime, sexuality in Japan. And she is absolutely genius in a twisted and uncomfortably dark Japanese way. Her female characters get twisted in crime by way of strange fate ( very Japanese) and they way they deal with it exposes the horrible sexism of the society.I don’t know how to quite describe her books, suffice it to say, they are satisfactorily dark , bizarre and macabre.

Apart from these, I also quite like psychiatrist Frieda Klein (Nicci French) and, Journalist turned private investigator Tess Monaghan ( Laura Lippman). I do pick up books if they feature a woman investigator now and then, but nobody has stayed with me as the women above have.

Aaaah, what wouldn’t I give to have a real juicy murder in my building now…