Strong Women Characters in Crime Fiction…

A very interesting thread on the ‘Mrs Peabody Investigates’ blog has prompted a lot of discussion about the issue of graphic violence in crime fiction, notably violence against women.

Also, perhaps as an antidote to the concerns, a positive thread about strong women in crime fiction has run alongside it… both interesting threads and relevant to my own novel Kiss and Tell.

I am really grateful to Mrs P for including Jill Shadow in her approved list of strong women in crime fiction. Jill would be chuffed I’m sure to sit neatly between Lisbeth Salander and Vera Stanhope.

It made me reflect over the inspiration behind Jill’s character, as well as reconsider my own take on the issue of violence.

Starting with the latter – although my recent background has been in television script writing, I had previously spent some time working in the law. The issue of violence against women resonates from those times.

It was in the era when the police would often fail to properly investigate what they might flippantly refer to as ‘domestics’. Violence against women, particularly in the home, wasn’t considered to be a serious matter by the authorities. In response some of the more progressive lawyers took a stance where they would only represent women in domestic violence proceedings, often because they had no other support and their claims hadn’t been properly investigated.

The resulting injunctions, mostly of the non-molestation and curfew variety, with a power of arrest attached, was often the only way of bringing the offenders to court.  Magistrates and Family Court judges would wonder why such violence had previously gone unchallenged, and on some occasions the police were actually shamed into taking criminal action against such violent offenders themselves.

These cases started to bring the matter more into the public spotlight, and with the help of many campaigning groups the authorities were eventually forced to deal with the issues more seriously, and professionally.

The other issue which divided many in the criminal law field was that of rape. The way both victims and witnesses were treated was often as disgraceful as it was woeful. I’m told there have been vast improvements, but it is still somewhat alarming to hear of the tales told by victims of abuse arising from recent high profile enquiries. Many claim they are not believed in the first instance. What chance have they got of bringing the matter to court when the authority which is supposed to support the prosecution doubts their story from the start?

So, how did all this affect me a writer?

I had read many crime novels where a notably savage antagonist commits graphically portrayed violence, often against women. It was a familiar theme and a tempting starting point for anyone contemplating their first crime fiction novel. However, despite proving successful for some, it was something I was keen to avoid.

Some posts on Mrs P’s blog suggest that some, albeit perhaps few, readers of crime fiction novels, may have a darker motive, in that they get their kicks from the depiction of such graphic violence. I cannot say this was a reason for me avoiding that aspect of the genre but it is an interesting point.

Perhaps a stronger point for me was that of sheer overload. We all know that such awful serial killer crimes do take place, but surely the ubiquitous misogynist serial killer, as portrayed in many a crime fiction novel, is way out of proportion to the prevalence of such events in the real world… maybe it’s this which adds to an unhealthy prurience?

Without doubt there are some well known crime fiction writers who have got the art of the serial killer saga finely tuned. They write such stories with amazing skill and dexterity and shouldn’t be blamed for their choice of storyline… but maybe some others came along and jumped on the bandwagon?

In the same way that magazine proprietors know that sex sells, and often violence too, perhaps some writers have thought ‘that’ll do me’ and used a similar template? Much as the ‘copy cat’ killer can be an awkward issue in crime fiction narrative perhaps ‘copy cat’ writers have fuelled the fire of this particular debate?

In any event, it wasn’t something I had any urge to write about, and with the introduction of Jill Shadow in Kiss and Tell I have tried to approach the genre from a different angle.

I had always been interested in the investigations which failed, which didn’t get their man, which were tainted with prejudice and corruption… and interested too in what happens when the guilty remain at large and unpunished, or when the innocent are unfairly convicted? Jill is there to take these cases on, particularly ones the police and other authorities would rather leave well alone…

Jill Shadow is not your archetypal lawyer, far from it. She fought her way to the top via a most challenging route. Jill worked her way up from secretary, to clerk, to legal executive and to eventually becoming a fully qualified lawyer.

She was an eighteen year old single mum from a London council estate when she joined a law firm as a secretary. Her ex [the baby’s father] had just left her courtesy of a long prison sentence for drug trafficking, a fact he had kept concealed. In turn, Jill kept the truth concealed from the firm’s partners. Not only that but as her daughter got older she kept the truth concealed from her too, making up a story to fit the facts of her father’s sudden disappearance.

In ‘Kiss and Tell’, Jill finds herself having to confront her past, as well as unwittingly being ensnared in what has colloquially become known as ‘the drug debate’… the issue of decriminalisation and classification of controlled drugs. She discovers that some powerful people are lobbying behind the scenes… It’s one of many issues Jill will tackle head on.

The previous post on this blog deals with how we are all suffering as a result of ill thought out legislation. This is the one of the issues of the day, and one yet to be properly addressed. Some years back Jill would have been at the vanguard of change in battling for the rights of women in domestic violence proceedings, or in changing the procedure in rape trials…. but not because she has an overtly political background. She is simply there for the underdog, for the man or woman in the street… because essentially that’s who she is.


4 Responses to “Strong Women Characters in Crime Fiction…”

  1. Mandy de Waal Says:

    Interesting take on the issue. My own writing depicts crime as a backdrop to the characters’ lives not as the main event, which in my experience (criminal law, social research) is how it is experienced by many people – unsolved, unsolvable, everyday, corrosive stuff.

    • timscribe Says:

      Very true Mandy. Crime is often unsolved, and sometimes unsolvable. The sort of crime we often come across in fiction is the high end. In reality much crime is woven into the fabric of everyday life. In any event the law constantly struggles to deal with its effects, invariably failing. Good to hear from you… I am following…

  2. Margot Kinberg Says:

    Tim – Thanks for your thoughts on this. I really appreciate your perspective as a writer. You have a fascinating point that people may pay attention to such novels in part because such killers are very rare in real life. I confess I’ve not yet finished Kiss and Tell, but one of the things I’ve already noticed – and really like – about Jill Shadow is that she is not your stereotypical vulnerable ‘heroine in peril.’ One respects her because she is a strong character. And you haven’t put her at the mercy of a sadistic crazed killer who’s out to draw as much painful blood as possible, so the plot’s also not stereotypical.

    • timscribe Says:

      Good to hear from you again Margot. My perspective is probably tainted with the fact that many legal cases only go to prove how inadequate our systems of justice can be. There are many murky areas which Jill Shadow will no doubt explore! Much of these arise form clashes between the individual and the state, which doesn’t like to have its flaws exposed. A fair chunk of crime fiction tends to show the up side, when things ‘work properly’ and the police get their man etc, but Jill’s likely to venture into more shady areas…

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