Lorraine Mace is an author, columnist, writing tutor and, as her alter ego, Frances di Plino, a crime writer. Her ebook Bad Moon Rising was published by Crooked Cat Publishing in March 2012 and sequels Someday Never Comes, Call It Pretending and Looking for a Reason are available now.

Lorraine and I have been friends and colleagues for years and her opinion is one I greatly respect. Hence my asking her to discuss something that bothers me.

JJ: We’ve talked about this before, in 2009, when Jessica Mann refused to review any more excessively violent crime novels. But since then, we’ve both published a series of crime novels. Feminists and crime fiction – an odd couple?

LM: I suppose it is in some ways, but there is a difference between writing crime and endorsing violence. If the sole purpose of the book is to titillate those who enjoy depictions of violence against women (as Ms Mann states: sadistic misogyny) then I am strongly on her side, but if the violence is there simply to show the depravity of the perpetrator, then I, as an author, feel obliged to write in some necessary violent acts.

JJ: Do you think ‘dead women sell books’, as the publisher quoted in the article above believes?

LM: No, I don’t accept this. A recent Harris Poll showed that women are more likely than men to read mysteries, thrillers, and crime novels (57% versus 39%). Surely, if that truly reflects reading tastes based on gender, it doesn’t suggest that women like to read about sadistic attacks on other women?

JJ: I hope not. But I read a lot of crime novels before beginning my own and found much of the most graphic and horrific incidents of rape, torture and brutality were penned by women. Why do you think that is?

LM: Perhaps because women are better able to get inside the heads of both victims and perpetrators? I’m not sure many male writers can achieve that sense of helplessness and fear that women victims go through. That sounds very gender biased on my part, and maybe it is, but I do feel that the way so many of us have been raised to accept male dominance (even in this day and age) makes us better able to identify with the victims and so create truly terrifying situations.

JJ: Good point. I interviewed Barbara Scott Emmett recently on the erotica phenomenon and in particular, the submissiveness in Fifty Shades of Grey. I asked her if she thought the popularity of such fiction was a backwards step for women. This is part of her reply:

“To be able to be honest about sexual preferences is a major step forward. Only when women have some power of their own can they admit to weaknesses. I think we’ve reached a stage where we can say, Yes, I do enjoy a bit of spanking, or, Hmm, I’d quite like to have a penis for a day to see how it feels, without losing that female power.”

I’m wondering how that equates to women writing violent crime against women. When women are being raped, murdered and brutalised in reality, are fiction writers (of either gender) who depict excessive violence part of the problem?

LM: I don’t think so, no. I cannot accept that rapists are more likely to commit their crimes because they’ve read a book depicting a rape or murder. People such as the Wests and the Moors Murderers didn’t go out and commit their terrible crimes because of what they’d read – they did so because of something deep within compelled them to act out their fantasies – with each murder leading them to carry out worse depravities to feed their needs.

Children, on the other hand, are much more likely to act out what they see and read. So I do worry about the level of violence in children’s books. Does that make me a hypocrite? Possibly.

In fiction, more novels seem to deal with violence against women (by authors of both genders). Why do you feel this is? Is it because in real life there is more violence against women?

JJ: I’d say there is an element of reflecting society, because yes, there is more violence against women. Eve Ensler (who wrote The Vagina Monologues) has recently launched a campaign called One Billion Rising. According to her, one in three women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. She calls this an atrocity. I agree.

My concern about including violence against women as a staple of crime fiction is that it reinforces the normalcy of such a fact. As a crime writer, I have a responsibility to tell a damn good story. As a woman, I have a responsibility to avoid lazy clichés of ‘everyday’ violence against women: “alcoholic detective – check, amusing sidekick – check, mutilated prostitute – check.”

We don’t write in a vacuum. Our books can add to the ‘Dead Women Sell Books’ mountain.  The other alternative is to confront it head-on, as I believe you have done; or we can attempt to subvert that trope, as I’ve tried to do.

LM: I’m not sure I agree with you fully on this point. I’m not convinced that more violence would be perpetrated against women as a result of it being featured in crime novels, but I do agree with you that stereotypes can be reinforced. Sad to say, when I worked with battered women in Cape Town most of the men who were guilty of attacking their wives or girlfriends were not literate. On the other hand, during training I met several women who had broken away from well-educated abusive partners. The point I’m trying to make is that violent men will be so regardless of a writer’s output. I sometimes think we writers take too much credit for influencing others.

JJ: One of things I admired so much about Bad Moon Rising is how you depict the scale of attitudes towards women. You have at one extreme a murderous psychopath and at the other, casual verbal sexism by a young ‘lad’. Not to mention the domestic abuse storyline. It’s impossible to put the book down and remain unaware of the gradient of contempt.

LM: Thank you. I have to be honest and say I didn’t sit down and plan to show this. I simply allowed my characters to say and do what was in keeping with them as people. I based them on people I’ve known over the years – good, bad and, like most of us, somewhere in between.

JJ: And can you talk a little about how you got into the mind of a sadistic killer?

LM: I found this incredibly difficult at first. It was easy to get into a clichéd version of such a person, but I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to discover how he’d reached that stage. I needed to find out what turned a bright child, desperate for love, into someone capable of such acts of rage. So I started with the child. I ‘became’ that child and went back in time. By the time I’d played his life forward I found I could ‘become’ the man. It was really disturbing to experience his way of thinking and feeling as if those thoughts and feelings were my own.

You show very little of the underlying violence in Behind Closed Doors. Was that a conscious decision on your part? If yes, why?

http://www.beatrice-stubbs.com/behind-closed-doors.htmlJJ: Very much so. Firstly, it’s not about violence, it’s about a very twisted kind of morality. One could say the same of Bad Moon Rising. Secondly, I had become frustrated and bored with clichéd crime tropes and wanted to turn them on their heads. So I wrote the book to entertain a very particular reader – me.

LM: The victims in Behind Closed Doors are male. Was this deliberate, or simply because corporate power is still predominantly male?

JJ: The vast majority of corporate decision-making is taken by men, yes. And as we have recently seen, some of those decisions are ethically questionable. So I wanted to explore the morality behind the ‘suit’. I also wanted to use certain alpha male characteristics, such as power and unshakeable self-belief, in the same way one can use an opponent’s strength in many martial arts, ie, against them. Unable to see danger because of ego-blindness.

But my starting point was the female characters. My imperative was to avoid two-dimensional female stereotypes of victim, bereaved/wronged wife or vengeful harpy. I set out to make my protagonist (and her antagonist) complex, morally ambiguous, courageous and flawed.

LM: Do you feel that only those who have experienced violence can portray it convincingly? And as a result understand, and so depict, the effect it has on all concerned – victims, perpetrators and onlookers?

JJ: As a writer, I’d have to say no. I think a person with empathy and imagination can create an effective portrayal of violence, childbirth, betrayal, an orgasm of the opposite gender, torture, heartbreak, obsessive love, loss or addiction , without first-hand knowledge of the thing. Many writers’ personal experiences inform and add depth to their depictions of violence, but equally, some writers’ real-life involvement can sometimes make them the worst people to write it.

LM: Unless we’re talking white collar embezzlement, violence is often part and parcel of crime. Where do you feel the line needs to be drawn when describing the violence taking place?

JJ: That must be up to the individual writer and her conscience, or stomach. I’ve been trying to avoid this word as it has ‘Irate of Ipswich’ tones, but I object to reading gratuitous violence. Overt attempts at the shock factor nauseate and irritate me. One of the most sickening terms I’ve heard applied to some crime fiction is ‘torture porn’. Violence as titillation.

LM: I agree with you. Gratuitous violence in books makes me stop reading, but it’s a fine line to walk as a writer. I want my killers to be ‘real’ people and, sadly, in the real world people are tortured for the pleasure of others. How much torture to show is the difference between credible and sickening.

In so-called cosy crime there is very often a high level of violence against women, but this is rarely shown on the page. Do you feel this ‘hidden’ violence makes it more acceptable for the reader?

JJ: Depends on the reader, I suppose. For me, the psychological elements are foregrounded, which is the appeal. I’ve recently discovered the work of Dorothy L. Sayers. She’d score few points for blood and graphic scenes of brutality, but her depiction of how mental cruelty, bullying, trust and mistrust, fear and paranoia can all work together as a very different kind of violence makes it a far more interesting and intelligent read.

Those Golden Age Who-dun-its are just as much Why-dun-its. The psychological aspect is crucial. Whereas much of popular crime fiction today seems to be He-dun-WHAT?! As for why, who cares?

LM: I agree with you here. I think showing barbaric acts for shock value is lazy writing – a case of let’s shove lots of violence in to hide the weakness of the story. But if a writer can get the reader to empathise even a tiny bit with the killer, especially if every fibre of the reader loathes said killer, then the writer has done her (or his)  why-dun-it job well and added value to the who-dun-it genre.

Behind Closed Doors by JJ Marsh

Bad Moon Rising by Lorraine Mace

    11 replies to "Feminists and crime fiction – an odd couple?"

    • bugs99

      Hmm… what a thought-provoking piece. One of the best I’ve read. I suspect the real reason so many graphically violent novels are on the shelves is that there IS a market for that sort of crime fiction – with the majority of those readers being women. Which makes me wonder why? What is it about violence, including sexual violence, that entices women readers?

    • Tricia

      Yes, I agree – an excellent discussion. I don’t read crime fiction often, and I think this is partly because I worry about the ‘normalcy’ aspects of depicting violence of all kinds – or at least, centring a book around it. Like Lorraine, I don’t believe for one moment reading crime novels leads people to commit crime, but I do wonder whether it gives it a prominence that makes it seem too fascinating. I am glad there are writers like you, writing with an informed and thoughtful attitude and will now seek out your books to see if I change my mind.

      • Sheila Bugler

        I disagree, Tricia. Good crime fiction doesn’t ‘normalise’ crime more than any other type of fiction. The best crime fiction is, like all good fiction, first and foremost about people. Crime fiction is a device for exploring people, character, relationships and the world we live in.

        I dislike generalisations about crime fiction as it assumes all crime fiction is equal. In fact, the truth is (sorry, Orwell) some crime fiction is more equal than others. Let’s name some writers at random: Attica Locke, Megan Abbott, Christa Faust, Raymond Chandler, Denis Lehane, George Pellicanos, Benjamin Black, Michael Dibdin, Walter Mosley. All of these writers do the absolute opposite of giving crime a prominence or making it seem fascinating. In fact, they do quite the opposite. I’ve just finished reading Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising – it’s a novel about racial injustice and political corruption. It’s also beautifully written and, ultimately, uplifting about humanity. A wonderful novel which just so happens to be marketed as ‘crime fiction.’

        There are writers, on the other hand, who DO sensationalise violence and crime. In general, these tend to be better known and more widely read than any of the authors mentioned above. Why?

        I suspect the answer to this is the same as why ‘literary fiction’ is less widely read than ‘commercial fiction’ – many readers want a page-turner that doesn’t require too much thought.

        But maybe I’m wrong?

    • jilljmarsh

      Thanks bugs, thanks Tricia.
      Truthfully, I don’t know why women write and are attracted by graphic violence. So I’m probably not the right person to speculate as I am not one of them. I’ve read writing from people who have suffered real-life terror and brutality. Yet their writing is uplifting, sobering and in so many ways, touching, but with an honesty that is missing from the push-button Andrew Lloyd-Webber emote-on-command writing that defines much of today’s gruesome fare. http://www.freedomfromtorture.org/survivor-voices/5112

    • jdl68

      Brilliant! I thoroughly enjoyed reading the interview for a few reasons.
      • I read BMR when it came out as an e-book, so to hear more about the author’s understanding and thought processes around a particular issue was fascinating to me.
      • It sounded like a good old chat over a glass of wine, neither party pandering to the other. Both talking about very definite views and opinions.
      • I work with women who are experiencing domestic abuse and have some very passionate feelings about some of the points you both discuss.
      • And…I can now get the ‘real thing’ on my book shelf. I love reading e-books, but a good one is always followed up with the hard copy being added to my collection. I want books that I love on my shelves… Simple.
      Feminists and crime fiction an odd couple? Personally, I think not.
      On a really basic note (I am not fortunate enough to have the same eloquence you ladies possess). Shit happens. Nasty shit happens. Nasty shit will always happen. People write. Some of what they write captures the raw emotion of said shit! Does a man or a woman write the best shit? Depends… Not on what they have personally experienced perhaps, but on what sort of person they are. How empathetic are they? Can they put themselves in another’s shoes?
      The thing I enjoy most about BMR is the personalities and their psychology. The violent crime is a by-product of a ruined individual. My limited experience justifies that opinion.
      My view of the human beast is that it will do whatever is necessary to meet it’s needs at that moment in time. How that particular beast is brought up, and it’s inherent, cultured or learned ethics on dealing with those needs and the consideration of others needs will enforce his/her judgement and therefore the action it chooses to take.
      So what am I saying? To write well, how many degrees of empathy do you feel?
      How much does another’s fear or pain impact you, or ‘live with you’. How much do you care? And will that help you describe the emotions you assume another feels in times of crisis? Does it matter that you are male or female?
      As a woman we feel confident that we can illustrate how another woman feels during and after rape. We are also audacious enough that we feel we can paint a picture of the rapist and his/her motivations.
      I have a question… How would a man describe his feelings about being raped? That I don’t think I could write about convincingly. But why?????
      I have to say, I think you are both blessed with an awesome talent. I am thrilled to have both books on my shelves and delighted in the knowledge that neither author has hung up her pen xx

    • jilljmarsh

      Such passionate and informed opinion. Thanks everyone. So much to thing about, I’ll have to revisit the topic after reading so many well-argued views. Another writer and powerful thinker wrote to me today, as she was unable to access the comments. Here are M’s opinions:

      I don’t read much crime fiction, well, at least, not when it involves mutilation, rape, torture, murder etc. of women because, basically, I can’t bear it; can’t bear to participate, visualise, imagine – I find myself wanting to run away, to sob. But that’s just on a personal level, fuelled by personal experience.

      I did read ‘Into the Darkest Corner’ by Elizabeth Haynes which was just such a novel, brilliantly written I thought, suspenseful and believable about the stalking, terrorising and abuse of the central female character by a ‘psychopath’. The reason I read it was because it depicted OCD as the traumatic result of her ordeal and I wanted to see how that was written (anguished – very good). Yes there was horrible violence and I have to admit I skim read the more graphic detail but I thought this was the point of this genre? What makes different levels of violence more or less acceptable – where’s the line?

      And then there’s the feminist standpoint – when you’ve campaigned in large and small ways most of your adult life for an end to violence against women, and their casual/systematic pornographic depiction in the media, it feels hypocritical, to say the least, to spend the evening reading about it for enjoyment.

      And yet … and yet. As a writer, could I write about it? Should I write about it? Not comfortably, but certainly authentically and, if my story called for it, I wouldn’t shirk from it. Art -v- morality. I think it’s a fact that violence against women sells books, tv series, films, magazines, newspapers etc., and, it seems, there are as many women as men engaged in writing about it. And, of course, and most importantly, it happens – in real life – too often, forever. But then, so does violence against men by both sexes.

      This is a difficult subject, for me, anyway, because as a writer I stand up for my right to write what I like, without censure, but with the proviso that whatever I write is relevant to story, to character. On the other hand, as a woman, I stand up for the right of all women/girls to be treated with dignity and respect, without exception, having no regard to their lifestyle choices or circumstances in which they find themselves. Can these two principles be reconciled within this particular crime genre? Given a skilful author I think yes, writing empathetically about her character’s ordeal and the life changing carnage that often ensues from such an ordeal. That’s what I thought was so good about the Haynes’ book – she showed the aftermath of the trauma and it’s effect on the woman (and her friends, family, future partner etc) which was, in my mind, more harrowing and heartbreaking than the ordeal itself. And she allows her character to grow and change as a result, and in spite, of what happened to her. And, of course, the ‘psychopath’ gets his cummuppance, which is always worth reading!

      Good and brave topic – well done, Jill.

    • Library Cat

      Very interesting debate (and I’m sorry I’m late to the party).

      You mention Dorothy Sayers, and I’m pretty sure it was an argument that she put into the mouths of Peter and his wife-to-be – that the job of crime writing is to restore order, to reassure people that, although dreadful things happen, there is a place where justice prevails, the bad guy is caught and all is made well again.

      Maybe that’s one reason why women write about violent crimes against women. Knowing they are realistically more likely to suffer sexual assault than poisoning in the library – and knowing that the track record for convicting the perpetrators is less than perfect – they create a world in which they can face up to what they fear and deal out justice where it’s deserved.

      Incidentally, slight change of subject but, in terms of television, I would say that most of the graphic deaths I can remember viewing in the last few years, probably the majority have been men. (But maybe that’s because I spent two years finally catching up on The Wire!)

      • jilljmarsh

        Thanks Library Cat. Yes, I do get the whole vicarious righting of the world as reaction to reality and that’s an excellent point.

        But I suppose my objection is to a different kind of fiction, in which women seem to be punished as victims, as detectives (for daring to challenge men) and in which all female characters have been either raped or abused.
        My comprehension gap arises when women write extremely graphic horrors against women and the justice factor is absent. They’re just dead women. All is not well again, it’s just a terrifying world of psychotic maladjusted weirdos, finding creatively grim ways of hurting people. (Most of whom are female.)

        Of course, there might be an element of exorcism of fear, but why do we buy, devour and apparently relish abuses of our own gender?

        By the way, I loved, loved, loved The Wire. Nothing (no irony intended) is black or white, but the way humans become commodities and make cruel choices is bang on topic.

    • charlotteotter

      Another feminist crime writer putting her hand up here. So great to see these kinds of conversations happening and thanks to Jill for making them happen. I decided when writing my first crime novel to turn all stereotypes on their heads – women as victims, men as saviours. I want to give power to the disempowered, and as I come from South Africa, which is where my book is located, I had a whole range of choice in terms of who the disempowered would be.

      Personally, I can neither read nor write extreme violence. I had to write a couple of violent scenes and my MC had to come up against antagonists who would threaten her physically, but much of the worst violence in my book (like much of the sex, especially the brutal kind) happens off-camera. I face the fact that it happens, but I swerve from describing it in loving detail. I guess in that case, like Jill, I am writing for myself.

      • jilljmarsh

        Interesting take, Charlotte, and I’m fascinated by your twist coupled with location. Your book is on my MUST read list. Thanks for your comment and I am very pleased to have found a like mind only four hours away!

    • fifty shades of grey ebook

      Excellent blog post. I absolutely love this site. Stick with it!

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