Sunday, March 20, 2022


A noted academic’s take on why women read and write crime


Zoë Sharp


It’s my pleasure to introduce Sally Cline to the blog. Sally is the author of 14 books, is an award-winning biographer and fiction writer. She is Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Research Fellow at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, and former Advisory Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund. Her biography on Radclyffe Hall, now a classic, was shortlisted for the LAMBDA prize; Lifting the Taboo: Women, Death and Dying won the Arts Council Prize for non-fiction; and her landmark biographies on Zelda Fitzgerald and Dashiell Hammett were bestsellers in the UK and US. She is co-Series Editor for Bloomsbury’s nine-volume Writers and Artists Companions. Formerly lecturing at Cambridge University, she has degrees and masters from Durham and Lancaster Universities and was awarded a D.Litt in International Writing.


Is crime fiction different when it is authored by women writers? How? In which ways?

And will female penned crime novels and short stories translate easily across cultures? Will Americans and Canadians read into British crime fiction the same ideas that the British author meant?


The answer according to the five years of research I have done for my new book “After Agatha: Women Write Crime” (Oldcastle Books) is yes. As long as the fiction is written by a woman.


The best starting point is the enduring and fascinating contradiction that women face both in Great Britain and also in the United States and Canada. This curious paradox is that women in all three countries who spend much of their real lives being terrorised by and afraid of male violence are nevertheless drawn to stories that luridly and frighteningly bring those fears to life.


Most women report that they are conditioned from their childhood to accept that there are men in the world, and what is worse there are men in THEIR world who want to beat them, batter them, hurt and damage them. Yet many of these same women whom I talked to not only persist but seem to enjoy reading novels in which other women are stalked, tortured, raped and even murdered often in such brutal detail it seems to be worse than lurid, it appears almost pornographic.


Not only did many mild mannered women tell me they read books like these but a separate segment of them said they enjoyed writing them.


These books are hugely popular. In the UK thriller and crime fiction has become our most popular literary genre accounting for one in three of all books sold. In 2017 according to the data company Nielsen Bookscan 18.7 million units of crime fiction were sold and today 2022 that figure is believed to be around 21 million. The output of crime books written by women rose during Covid and lockdown.


In the US the sales of crime and thriller fiction are second only to those of romance and erotica. In Canada mystery and crime books combined account for more than one hundred million dollars in sales each year. In each country women are driving the boom accounting for as much as 80 per cent of the market.


So why are women reading what they fear most?


My top theory is The Reassurance Theory. Women who are desperately afraid in their real lives most of the time are drawn to reading explicitly about those fears (and also writing about them) because it is one way of addressing those fears in a safe environment ie the world of fiction.


Also in many crime novels there is the next theory, the Safe Ending Thesis. In many crime novels the ending is very satisfactory as crimes are resolved, perpetrators are punished. Justice is generally done.


Women who are both vulnerable in fact but also feel vulnerable can then feel strengthened.


Readers can feel horror, tension, fear all the way through the book but somewhere in their minds is the knowledge that some part of the ending will feel ok.


Women readers could turn to books that are equally tense, sometimes more so, written by men but they don’t. They seek out books written by women.


Why do they do this? What is it in female authored crime books that sets them apart?


The most important element in women’s crime writing that makes them distinct and different from men’s writing is that these books show greater understanding and stronger insight into the minds of potential victims. There is also a greater desire in women to understand crime and the psychology behind it. In psychological thrillers it is often women who avenge the crimes and turn the tables swiftly even savagely on the perpetrators.


I asked all the crime writers I interviewed why they chose that particular genre to call their own.


Obviously one answer they all gave was the commercial one. Crime sells. It is either immediately published in paperback or goes into paperback soon after hardback publication. Crime fiction often whizzes to the top of the best seller lists so more and more people hear about it. These are the books on the front tables of Waterstones, Heffers and Blackwells so people who are not remotely interested in mysteries or thrillers see them and pick them up.


Mainly crime writers said that as possible crimes added to their own daily fears one way of coming to grips with these was to fictionalise them.


Interestingly several new women writers come from other professional groups such as the criminal justice system, where police officers, forensic scientists, probation officers and lawyers are also writing best selling crime books and finding their professional expertise can be employed skilfully in their new creative industry.


Many women writers from all three countries told me they have taken to crime in order to reflect on and make comments about the social and political landscapes they see around them.  Finally many writers on this side of the pond and the other side have decided that crime fiction is a wonderful way to explore the significant issues facing all women today.


After Agatha: Women Write Crime

From Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith to Val McDermid and JK Rowling, After Agatha is an indispensable guide to women's crime writing over the last century and an exploration of why women read crime.


Spanning the 1930s to present day, After Agatha charts the explosion in women's crime writing and examines key developments on both sides of the Atlantic: from the women writers at the helm of the UK Golden Age and their American and Canadian counterparts fighting to be heard, to the 1980s experimental trio, Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton, who created the first female PIs, and the more recent emergence of forensic crime writing and domestic noir thrillers such as Gone Girl and Apple Tree Yard.


After Agatha examines the diversification of crime writing and highlights landmark women's novels which featured the marginalised in society as centralised characters.


Cline also explores why women readers are drawn to the genre and seek out justice in crime fiction, in a world where violent crimes against women rarely have such resolution.


The book includes interviews with dozens of contemporary authors such as Ann Cleeves, Sophie Hannah, Tess Gerritsen and Kathy Reichs and features the work of hundreds of women crime and mystery writers. It is an essential read for crime fiction lovers.


‘Having read After Agatha, I found it a fascinating work of extraordinary breadth and scope, covering authors from the Golden Age to present day. Sally’s enthusiasm for her subject matter shines through. The conclusions she draws—supported by numerous interviewees—of women as crime writers, as the main protagonists of books written by women, and as the victims within crime fiction, make this compelling reading. This book richly deserves a place on the bookshelves of anyone interested in the genre. My only minor complaint was that it would have been very useful to have a key to identify some of the famous signatures on the cover!’ ZS


1 comment:

  1. Well done, Sally. It's time this story is told. I look forward to getting a copy!