Female murder victims, Sexy Autopsy Lady and the problem with crime fiction

I watched a male detective pull the sheet off a murder victim. He gave her a glance, and added to his injuries report: “Pretty, too.”

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I vividly recall the Twin Peaks trailer in 1990, and the reedy voice saying, “She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic!” Years later, after a life consuming cheap American crime procedurals on TV, it struck me that Lynch’s 48-part psychedelic opus was driven by the same momentum as your average episode of CSI: an attractive female body on a slab. Had Laura Palmer been a middle-aged man with a tag on his toe, there would be no show. Recently, on something like Criminal Minds, I watched a male detective pull the sheet off a female murder victim. He gave her a glance, and added to his injuries report: “Pretty, too.” My eyes popped. But there I was, enjoying the show with my beans on toast.

Last week, the author Bridget Lawless launched a new prize for fiction, for the best thriller “in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”. We are all familiar with the gripping, grimy plots she’s talking about. Detectives in dramas investigating murdered girls are galvanised by an unacknowledged, quasi-erotic interest couched in vengeful, fatherly terms. There’s the inevitable inspection of the dead girl’s bedroom – drawers, diaries –  like the legitimate face of the peeping Tom. And as the body count mounts, there are dead girls fixed to the notice boards in the police stations, in a grim twist on the pin-ups in mechanics’ workshops. The victims turn out (see Netflix’s Mindhunter) to be just a little bit wilder than their cherubic faces would suggest; a hidden no-good boyfriend, a secret tryst with an older man. She wasn’t asking for it, but…

The thing is, loads of women love these shows! Women are the biggest consumers of crime fiction – between 60 and 80 per cent. In 2009, the British crime writer Martyn Waites was encouraged to take a pseudonym, Tania Carver, to publish his book The Surrogate, in which (original idea, this) a serial killer cuts out the foetuses of pregnant women. Waites’s publishers wanted female writers to appeal to their female audience. Women were the targets of the foetus-chopping book. Which makes complete and utter sense to me.

Culture is life in hyper-reality. It is deeply primal to watch, played out, the things you most fear happening to you. It is exhilarating to travel to the darkest end of a system in which you have no choice but to live. Women are far less frightened of blood and pain than men, and so they are drawn to horror – many more of my female friends enjoy scary films than my male ones. There’s a true-crime documentary on YouTube called Solved which offers bite sized murder stories with a forensic focus. I like the ones that start: “Colleagues were worried when Stacey didn’t show up for work,”and I skip the ones about businessmen being shot in parking lots. Analyse that. Actually, it’s easy.

One argument against Lawless’s prize is that the themes she objects to can’t be ignored because they reflect real life: Val McDermid says she’ll continue to write about this stuff as long as it continues to happen. But that is to ignore the fact that much best-selling crime fiction is driven by preposterous plots and characters, and ludicrous, baroque motives. So why not try out some new power plays?

There has been one development: a stock character I’ve observed in some US crime shows and books who, for the purposes of this column, I shall call Sexy Autopsy Lady. She is dark-haired, fiery and only seems to do her post-mortems at night; she flirts with male detectives over her carcasses in the morgue. In Carl Hiaasen’s novel Bad Monkey, Sexy Autopsy Lady even has sex with a cop on the slab.

But the best way to recalibrate the gender clichés in crime fiction? Write more female serial killers. Lawless should establish a prize for the best female maniac in literature. Give her a motive as inane as the kind of thing the men are given – an obsession with Edgar Allen Poe; a missed job opportunity, many years ago. Give her a narcissistic personality disorder and a monumental ego. Make her kill everyone, male and female, without discrimination, and build a treehouse out of their bones. With literature, we can change the world.

Kate Mossman is a senior writer at the New Statesman

This article appears in the 02 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration

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