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?
JJ: 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
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