15 January 2021
Lara Thompson, author of crime thriller One Night, New York, on why crime writers should resist the 'dead women' trope
Most crime fiction is built atop the bodies of dead women. They lie prostrate, strewn on bathroom floors, stacked up beneath wooden boards - often white, often young, often thin - if not dead then always bleeding, always screaming. When men aren’t killing them in droves the women are killing themselves via heartbreak, addiction or shame, and we, the reader, are encouraged to sniff at the whodunnit trail (as well as the woman’s entrails) alongside predominantly male detectives with their own slew of dangerous but loveable issues - those epically heroic antiheroes.
There is a reason crime writing like this is still popular. It’s strangely comforting. Familiar. Business as usual when 80 women were murdered by a partner in in the UK in the year ending March 2019 and 241 were victims of homicide. It reinforces the long-held belief that women are vulnerable, weak and easy to dispose of. Done badly, this kind of female-body-heavy writing is as dangerous as the killers themselves. It glorifies the abuse, objectification and terrorisation of women. It lags the reader in their blood and makes us complicit in the voyeuristic enjoyment of female pain. It offers sticky misogynist stereotypes with no alternatives. Men are killers or saviours. Women are victims or lucky to be saved. Walk on by, nothing to see here, just another woman getting attacked because she deigned to walk outside at night alone.
The truth is, fiction that kills women over and over again is problematic, not because it encourages men to abuse and murder, but because it persuades women to hide. Be honest, if you’re reading this and identify as a woman how many times have you felt safe on your own street in the dark? How much of that fear is down to the repeated fictional dangers you’ve read or watched, as opposed to the unlikely possibility you will actually be assaulted? Stay indoors, most crime fiction whispers - don’t drink, don’t do drugs, don’t wear revealing clothes, don’t be young, don’t get depressed, don’t have an affair, don’t party, don’t talk to strangers - stay safe. Even though, of course, the horrifying reality is that most victims of abuse get hurt or killed indoors in their own homes by people they know. By people they love.
With ‘conform or get killed’ as an unofficial tagline, I can understand why some are done with all the blood-splattered breasts. Bridget Lawless’ Staunch prize for ‘thrillers in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered’ has honourable aims. Since 2018 they’re been looking for ‘well-written, exciting thrillers that offer an alternative narrative to stories based around violence to women.’ For stories ‘in which female characters don’t have to be raped before they can be empowered, or become casual collateral to pump up the plot.’ I want that too I hear you shout. It makes sense, but on the other hand, things are bit more complicated.
At its best crime fiction that includes dead women can remind society to care, to think about all those who’ve died already, to remember not to abuse women (duh), to fight the good fight. And there are excellent reasons for maintaining the status-quo and upping the female body count - as the giants of crime (McDermid, Hannah and Crouch) have rightly argued (McDermid - “As long as men commit appalling acts of misogyny and violence against women, I will write about it so that it does not go unnoticed.”) It’s a fact that women get abused and murdered by serial killers and their own partners more than men so it’s only right us writers should reflect reality. Viewed in isolation, pseudo-gagging orders and blanket-bans (however well-intentioned) only serve to annoy other (often female) crime-writers.
So, hesitantly, might I suggest a third blood-soaked way? (Yes, you caught me sitting awkwardly on the barbed-wire fence here). Isn’t it simply all about variety? As writers we have a responsibility to write well, but don’t we also have a responsibility to represent well too? That means switching male detectives for female as is now the way of most sophisticated scandi-noirs, but it also means avoiding murder altogether or killing a wide variety of people by a wide variety of perpetrators for a wide variety of reasons. I’ve tried to do this in my debut crime thriller - One Night, New York. Winter solstice, 1932, a few days before Christmas. Two women are waiting on top of the Empire State Building to kill a man who has done something terrible to them. It’s a thriller and a love story, a noir and a coming-of-age tale, but it’s also a study of what anyone (wherever they’re from, whoever they love and however they identify) might be capable of when pushed to the edge. So, if you’re killing people in your books mix it up a little. Be inventive. Come at the horror and the death count from a different angle. Upend your plot. Peek through an unusual keyhole with an unlikely eye. Reconsider the gender, age, race and sexual orientation of all your characters. Modern crime fiction should be as diverse and representative as it is taut and bloody. Most of all, if you do kill women in your books, don’t forget - to paraphrase the great conceptual artist Barbara Kruger - your body (in the basement) is a battleground.
One Night, New York, is published by Virago and available now.
Wnat to read more about crafting crime fiction? Here's Dom Nolan on how to build tension in your crime writing.