What women’s crime writing tells us about the world: Carmel Shute

The Boys’ Book Club asked Carmel Shute, the secretary of Sisters in Crime, to address its end of year dinner on 11 December.  She chose the topic “What women’s crime writing tells us about the world” and here is what she said, after seeking the views of a lot of very generous members, mostly authors: 

Thank you. Before I start confessing to my crimes, I’d like to do a short poll.

Is there anyone in this room who hasn’t read a crime or mystery novel – or a true crime book?

Who reads more than 6 a year?

Who’s addicted to them?

And what’s your level of addiction?

I can see I’m not alone in my passion. Crime novels dominate book sales, last year in the UK overtaking general fiction for the first time.

And who watches crime shows on television? It’s pretty hard to avoid them. You sit in front of the box on Friday night and you automatically think British crime on the ABC (and at this time of the year, endless repeats on things like Death in Paradise and Midsomer Murders). But every night is crime night, particularly now with streaming when we can watch shows like the multi-award winning Big Little Lies, based on the writing of Sydney author, Liane Moriarty and starring our Nicole or the unbelievably good drama based a true crime case, Unbelievable, which stars Toni Collette. Both Nicole and Toni were nominated for Golden Globe Awards for their roles this week.

Crime writing changed my view of the world from a young age and it was all Enid Blyton’s fault. It began with her Secret Seven Series and continued with the Famous Five mysteries. The first book I ever bought with my own money was Five Go Adventuring Again, the second in the Famous Five series. It cost 9/6 at Doran’s Newsagency and Bookshop in the main street of Gympie, Queensland and I saved up the money by getting letters published in the kids’ pages of the Gympie Times.

I still have it here [show book] and it’s inscribed: “C Shute, Brooloo, M.V.Line (that was the Mary Valley rail line – we were literally at the end of the line), Q L D.

Looking back to 1961, it was an odd sort of watershed. It signified the beginning of my obsession with book buying. I live in an apartment bursting with books, including one wall devoted to women’s crime novels and the other opposite to male mysteries (and we all know males are a mystery).

In my bedroom are several towers of ‘soon-to-be-read’ crime novels that threaten to totter every day and occasionally do throw themselves to the floor.

This occasion in Doran’s Newsagency also set my life’s trajectory in other ways. In 1991, I helped found Sisters in Crime Australia which threatens to take over my life – and which has played no small smart in getting Australian women crime writers published. Interestingly it involves a lot of women who grew up cutting their teeth on the Famous Five.

I don’t know if crime pays but it certainly costs. Books, even at Doran’s, don’t cost 9/6 anymore and sometimes I can’t always wait until the small format paperbacks come out. As a convenor of Sisters in Crime, I feel duty bound to keep up with at least Australian women crime writers but also the best of what’s being published overseas, and what men are writing.

I also ended up earning my living by writing – for 12 years, I worked at the City of Port Phillip in which I was paid to write media releases, speeches, opinion pieces, scripts and letters to the papers, drafts on behalf of the mayor. The book made me a staunch anti-fascist and I later went on to start a Masters on World War II.

Five Go Adventuring Again also appealed for the exactly the same reasons that my favourite adult crime novels do. It had a great mystery – hidden treasure, wicked Nazis trying to do in a British scientist who was the dad of the main character George.

I identified wildly with George. As some of you may recall, George was a girl who rebelled against her given name Georgina and much else. She had curly hair, short like mine was then and shorts which were rather longer. She was strong and feisty, a girl doing it for herself, though sometimes misunderstood.

The Five had great adventures, even that wimpy, prissy Ann, who reminded me of certain girls I didn’t like, the sort who grew up to have dead fish handshakes.

In Five Go Adventuring Again, the young detectives had to contend with Nazis and other baddies but managed to win the day. They used the secret tunnel behind the hidden panel in the wall to go between the mainland and Kirrin Island. The Five also had a boat which they rowed there and back. They had so much freedom. I was envious. In Brooloo, even with a bike, there weren’t many places to go.

Librarians and educationalists have waged war on Enid Blyton for years and sometimes, when you look at her portrayal of poor old Neddy and Golliwog you can sort of understand. Her stories do reflect the racism of their times. Gypsies got a particularly hard time of it – as you’ll see parodied in Dawn French’s and Jennifer Saunders’ wonderful spoofs, Five Go Mad in Dorset and Five Go Mad on Mescalin.

But those worthy librarians and educationalists miss the point. Yes, her books may not exhibit a lot of complex psychology but one of the reasons that the Famous Five endure in popularity is that Blyton offers kids a sort of blank page which they can write themselves onto. George offered young girls agency.

My sisters used to roam the bush around Brooloo, the tiny country town where we lived, trying to rival The Five in their adventures, not to mention their fabulous picnic lunches topped off with lashings of ginger beer.

The juxtaposition of food and crime has also continued in my life. The Sisters in Crime nearly always enjoy a meal before one of our events – now at the Rising Sun Hotel here in South Melbourne, but with lashings of wine, not ginger beer. Not surprisingly, there is actually a subgenre within crime fiction called culinary crime and they nearly all have punning titles such as The Main Corpse, The Butter Did It and Cereal (that’s C-e-r-e-a-l) Murders and many include recipes.

Women’s crime writing generally tells us a lot about food and grog.

Thanks to Donna Leon’s wonderful Inspector Brunetti novels set in Venice, my old flatmate Kay and I decided to try prosecco, one of Inspector Brunetti’s favourite tipples. This was over 20 years ago so we had to seek it out – and what a joyous discovery that was. We were ahead of the game.

The pioneering female private eyes back in the 80s weren’t, I’ll admit, all that flash in the kitchen department. Kinsey Millhone, the PI in Sue Grafton’s alphabet series (A is for Alibi etc), could only manage peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. Kate Fansler, the academic sleuth of Amanda Cross’s books (Death in a Tenured Position etc) had one staple: steak, potatoes and salad.

But on to more weighty matters…

Norman Mailer claimed that you have to have balls to write crime, but the members of Sisters in Crime Australia and I beg to differ.

Women’s lack of that masculine equipment is precisely what gives us the edge when it comes to writing crime. We aren’t writing from a position of gender privilege. We know what makes the world tick in both the big and small and subtle ways. As women, we are all too aware of the violence that lurks everywhere, regardless of age, appearance and class. When we walk down those mean streets at night, we clutch our keys in our hand and keep our ears open for any footsteps that follow us.

But it’s once we’re inside the front door, that we face the most danger. Since 1 January this year, 65 women and 24 children have been murdered. 53 of the women murdered were what is termed “alleged relationship violence deaths”. Of the 153 men killed, 13 of the murders were relationship related. And we’ve got Christmas to come.

So what women know about the world is that the domestic sphere is where politics begin. Crime begins at home.

As Lucy Sussex outlines in her book, Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth Century Crime Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan 2010), women’s traditional role in the domestic sphere made them more observant than men, and hence more skilled at reading subtle clues. Anna Katharine Green, author of the path-breaking novel The Leavenworth Case, sometimes mistakenly dubbed the first American detective novel, also invented the spinster sleuth, Amelia Butterworth, who, like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple a couple of generations on, solves cases thanks to acute powers of observation and her social invisibility.

Moving ahead to 2019. Crime fiction, according to Mel McGrath, the author of the Arctic crime series (National Post), “has moved on from the common tropes established mostly by male writers in the last century, where a woman dies in order that the men who investigate her death can be heroes. The blonde femme fatales with their hourglass figures and rapier nails who populate the novels of Raymond Chandler and Micky Spillane exist only as historical souvenirs or else in heavily ironic contemporary parodies.”

She also observes:

“Women have long turned to crime fiction, both as readers and writers, because it explores the place male writers and readers often fear to tread — where female power, terror and rage intersect. In women’s crime fiction, what might seem on the surface to be a story about women aggressed by men is often a cover for a deeper more disturbing truth.

“Take Gillian Flynn’s 2012 international blockbuster Gone Girl, the book that kick-started the current popularity of psychological thrillers in domestic settings. On the surface it’s a revenge thriller of a scorned woman against her feckless husband but look a bit deeper and you’ll see that the protagonist Amy’s real rebellion is against the parents who ruthlessly pressured their little girl into becoming the ‘perfect’ daughter, then exploited their confection for financial gain in a series of ‘Amazing Amy’ children’s books.”

What is now dubbed ‘domestic noir’ has proved very popular in Australia. Think Big Little Lies or Jane Harper’s latest best-seller, The Lost Man, which is also dubbed ‘rural noir’ because it’s set in outback Queensland, and the books by Wendy James, Petronella McGovern, Felicity McLean, Kylie Kaden and many more.

As Terrance Rafferty writes in The Atlantic“This is not a world Raymond Chandler would have recognized. On the streets his people walked, motives were more basic—money, sex—and means were more direct. ‘When in doubt,’ he once told his genre brethren, ‘have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.’ When today’s crime writers are in doubt, they have a woman come through the door with a passive-aggressive zinger on her lips.”

Rafferty argues that:

“Male crime writers seem never to have fully recovered from the loss of the private eye as a viable protagonist, and men, for whatever reason (sports?), appear to need a hero of some kind to organize their stories around. Cops and lawyers and the odd freelance avenger (Lee Child’s Jack Reacher) are about all that’s left.

“The female writers, for whatever reason (men?), don’t much believe in heroes, which makes their kind of storytelling perhaps a better fit for these cynical times. Their books are light on gunplay, heavy on emotional violence.”

Women domestic noir writers also talk about that condition that dare not speak its name? Can you guess what it is?

I’ll give you a clue – it’s the central theme of Worst Case Scenario by Australian-born Glasgow-based author, Helen Fitzgerald, whose book The Cry was made into an acclaimed TV series which screened earlier this year.

[Pause]

The answer is: menopause.

Speaking as a woman of a certain age, it’s surprising that menopause has never been factored into a crime story. I know I could easily have killed a few people, especially work colleagues, in my early 50s.

But then again, perhaps it’s not a surprise. As Helen Fitzgerald said in an interview (Crime Time)

“The only menopause jokes I found online are from the male point of view and – excuse me for sounding like an angry feminist – not funny. (Q: What’s the difference between a rottweiler and a menopausal woman? A: Lipstick).”

Domestic noir has struck a chord. The acclaimed American author, Joyce Carol Oates, said in The New Yorker , “In the chorus of best-selling contemporary domestic thrillers, a triumphant #MeToo parable has emerged: that of the flawed, scorned, disbelieved, misjudged, and underestimated female witness whose testimony is rejected—but turns out to be correct. Vindication, cruelly belated, is nonetheless sweet.”

This, of course, is the theme of the TV series, Unbelievable, whose virtues I extolled earlier.

More generally, women know how to apply the blowtorch to society and write stories that thrill, entertain, subvert and inspire. Our stories, which often feature women kick-arse heroes, find a ready audience, particularly amongst women – and women, of course, make up the majority of book buyers and book club members.

A Boys’ Book Club is a rarity. The last time I looked over 90% of book club members were women.

A few other stats: women comprise around two-thirds of published authors and buy around three-quarters of the books sold.

In preparing this talk, I naturally consulted the Sisters and had a big response. Sulari Gentill, the author of 10 Roland Sinclair historical mysteries amongst other things, was born in Sri Lanka, learned to speak English in Zambia, grew up in Brisbane and now lives in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains of NSW, and says:

“I’d talk about the greater diversity that exists in women’s crime writing – not only in terms of authors but what they write about. Correct me if I’m wrong but I can’t think of a single male crime writer who isn’t both white and straight. Women’s crime writing is not especially diverse either but we are better than the men in that respect. There are crime writers of colour among us, and many more coming up through the ranks. And there are many gay women crime writers.

“Because of that diversity, women’s crime writing presents a more detailed and truer picture of the world. As a whole our perspective is less narrow. Our novels vary widely, from historical (Kerry Greenwood, Malla Nunn and me) to domestic (Wendy James, Liane Moriarty), hard boiled (Emma Viskic), thrillers (Jane Harper, Dervla McTiernan)… Our protagonists are artists, housewives, strippers, cops, Zulu trackers, students, nosy old ladies. Most of the men seem to write cops and PIs, the occasional journalist or psychiatrist. Generally speaking their heroes are or were professionals. ”

I can’t but agree. While a lot of fiction literally lost the plot under the influence of post-modernism in the last two decades (please boo and hiss…), and much crime writing remains white, male and stale, women’s crime writing goes from strength to strength, exposing the underbelly of our society in unexpected ways.

Thanks to women crime writers, we know about all sorts of things about our society that we previously didn’t. Women crime writers often end up as being the conscience for society, exposing a lot of what goes on in an undercurrent of denial and selective ignorance, whether that is sexual abuse, violence, psychological abuse or the abuse and protection of power.

Emma Viskic’s series features a deaf private investigator, Caleb Zelic. We discover what it’s like to be deaf and questioned at a crime scene, how the hearing impaired navigate their way through the world, how they may eschew mechanical aids and prefer to go it alone. The third in the series, Darkness After Light (Echo) is just out.

In Candice Fox’s wonderful FNQ crime novels, Crimson Lake and Redemption Point, we find out what happens when you’re chewed up and spat out by the justice system, and how an acquittal (especially if it is “on a technicality”) does not preclude the punishment dished out by society’s vigilante-culture. The good news is that it’s being made into a TV series called Troppo.

Women’s crime books can effect real change. Dr Kathryn Fox, who writes the Anya Crichton’s forensic pathologist series, said:

  • Her books have encouraged sexual assault victims to come forward and report abuse, because they read about the specialist sexual assault centres, and dedication of staff through fictionalised but realism and research.
  • A forensic physician in the UK read one of her books and learnt that in NSW, three stages of consent for victims of sexual assault are more empowering for victims and lets them have a say in how their case progressed, if at all. She changed the way her sexual assault unit performed examinations in England, to better empower victims. We’d discussed procedures in clinical meetings, but it was reading through the eyes of a victim that she saw there was a better way.
  • Death Mask, a book she wrote about concussions and violent crimes by footballers, helped launch discussions of concussions in Australian footballers. The book prompted a number of media discussions, including in the sports pages of The Telegraph!

Thanks to women’s crime books, we even know what to do if there is a tsunami. In 2004, as a tsunami swept through South East Asia, I was holidaying on the Gold Coast and reading Fault Line, a novel by Sarah Andrews about her geologist sleuth Em Hansen. At the beginning of Chapter 25, it included a quote from the Roman historian Marcellinus in 365,describing in graphic detail the effect of an earthquake and tsunami in Alexandria which saw the waves rush backwards leaving the fish and sea creatures exposed and then roaring back in, killing many thousands and destroying ships and all before it. Had I been in Thailand, and the sea had retreated, I would have known exactly what to do. RUN!

On that note, I should probably run.

Just a couple of final points. Despite the evident success of women’s crime writing and the new audiences it is grabbing on screen, a surprising number of women crime writers still chose to use initials rather than first names: J M Green, J M Peace, L J M Owen, L A Larkin, to name just a few. L A Larkin told me that she writes thrillers and a lot of men won’t read thrillers by women writers.

I leave you with the challenge posed by true crime writer, Vikki Petraitis – look at the gender spread, not the one with “yucky wide man legs”, but the one where you look at a gender balance in authors you read.

Even if they don’t read women’s crime, your wives and girlfriends might. It might be good to stay ahead of the plots in case these women have murder on their minds.

Thank you.

[Many thanks to the following members of Sisters in Crime for their ideas, comments and references: Samantha Battams, Robin Bowles, Anne Buist, Jacquie Byron, Sherryl Clarke, Kelly Gardiner, Sulari Gentill, Liz Filleul, Sara Foster, Kathryn Fox; Kylie Kaden, Sara Hood, Christina Lee, Ellie Marney, Petronella Nicholson, Sandra Nicholson, Vikki Petraitis, Carmel Reilly, Janice Simpson, Sarah Thornton; MJ Tjia, Sue Turnbull and Emma Viskic.]