The overwhelming success of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on a Train, both as a book and film, following as it did Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and the somewhat controversial BBC series The Fall, has prompted quite a bit of media musing on the subject of violence against women and how it’s portrayed in crime fiction.
On screen it is all too easy for violence and particularly its results to look graphic and gratuitous. When I worked as a scriptwriter on the hospital series Casualty and Holby City I saw at first hand the skill with which make-up artists and production designers recreated the most gruesome injuries.
It can also be alluring, particularly to directors, to have the camera creep through a scene like the ultimate voyeur, drawn to the worst of it, looking away, then going back for another peek, for yet more detail. Teasing the audience with the frisson of horror is a speciality of the medium.
The BBC’s excellent police drama, Happy Valley, showed a savage assault on a female police officer and came in for some flak. However, the writer, Sally Wainwright, directed the episode herself and explained that the level of violence was carefully considered. She went on to argue that it was depicted responsibly in that it showed the psychological as well as the physical damage suffered by the officer.
So what do we feel and what exactly is going on when we watch or read a scene of violence presented for our entertainment? Indeed, is it entertainment we’re looking for, or is it something a little more complicated?
Some argue it’s a way for women to explore our fears – the majority of crime readers are women – and come to an accommodation with them? With an increasing number of female detectives at the helm, bringing resolution and restoring the moral order for us, this is certainly one way to look at it.
However, writing about female detectives and specifically The Fall in the Observer (5th October 2014), Nicci Gerrard pointed out ‘there is a very fine line between exploring violence and male misogyny and simply portraying, even enacting it.’
Many women crime writers, including myself, find themselves teetering as they try to tread that fine line.
My personal view is that what draws female readers to the crime genre is anger as much as fear. Growing up female may or may not have exposed you to direct experiences of misogyny. But we’re certainly all witnesses to the patriarchal hatred of women and its need to control and contain femaleness that is out there to some degree in every society and culture.
We may fool ourselves that in the post-feminist West we’ve got beyond all that. This tends to ignore the ugly statistics that in the UK one incidence of domestic violence is reported to the police every minute and two women a week are murdered by their current or former male partners.
If we’re not angry, maybe we should be. But where can that anger go? Do we need a fantasy world to help us exorcise it?
It took a male writer, Stig Larsson, to offer us an uncompromising, unapologetic heroine, a victim who simply fought back, in the Dragon Tattoo books. The beauty of Lisbeth Salander is she really doesn’t give a shit and she’s got a few useful skills, which make her a very dangerous adversary.
And if we’re talking fantasy and entertainment, then I think there’s a lot to be said for dangerous women. Women, who can do all the things we can’t, who can look the rapist in the eye and pull the trigger.
Exploring this dynamic has been central to my trilogy The Informant, The Mourner and now concluded with The Killer. I hope, in Kaz Phelps, to have created a character who isn’t afraid to fight back.
The Killer by Susan Wilkins is published on 23rd March 2017 by PanMacmillian
She was a woman, so they thought she'd be easy to kill . . .
Kaz Phelps is on the run - from the past, from the legacy of her criminal family, from the haunting memories of her murdered lover. The police want her back in jail and her enemies want her dead. While standing by the grave of her gangster brother, Kaz realizes she only has one option. To fight back. Nicci Armstrong was one of the Met's best detectives until personal tragedy forced her to quit. Now she's responsible for the security of the super-rich who use her city as a playground. She is one of the few people Kaz might trust. But Nicci's biggest mistake yet is falling in love with a man she knows is only using her. Meanwhile, as envious rivals back home plot against him, a Russian billionaire searches for a special gift to keep the Kremlin onside, a disgraced politician dreams of revenge and a Turkish drug baron plots to purge his dishonour with blood.
More information about Susan Wilkins and her books can be found on her website. You can also follow her on Twitter @susanwilkins32. You can also find her on Facebook.