The Dark Ladies of Crime by Christopher Fowler

I’ve always loved crime novels, but I don’t want to read any more plots by male authors which linger on female sex workers being murdered, brutalised or women being held prisoner. Most real-life murders involve males knifing other males in arguments over territory, or domestic abuse. In bringing the latter to light, it seems we also become obsessed with making women victims.

It wasn’t always this way. In older crime novels fiction’s women were often in the driving seat. If they were bad they were hardboiled femmes fatales, and if they were good they were taking revenge on bullying men.

While I was seeking out writers for ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ I found a typical 1940s American pulp paperback with the kind of cover you needed to pick up: a tough blonde in a red skirt and slip, pointing a gun, dragging a guy along with her as a hostage. The caption read: ‘She had the face of a madonna and a heart made of dollar bills!’ They were assertive and gutsy, and knew how to get what they wanted.

It was an image that didn’t last. Women in the 1950s were treated like delicate Victorian wives. Female crime writers were reflecting the conservative times in their fiction, when women we would now consider still young could be written off as neurotic lonely spinsters. Often their heroines had physical or mental fragilities, and their sell-by date appeared to be around thirty.

The idea of hysterical fantasies being a female weakness (‘hysteria’ comes from the Greek hysterikos, meaning ‘of the womb’) had been present from the time when fainting fits were blamed on everything from tight corsets to a reliance on laudanum. ‘Highly strung’ women were watched for signs of lunacy that would get them locked away in asylums. They would be visited by male doctors who would warn them that they were suffering from nerves and needed to get some rest.

In these novels the family doctor would only discuss the female patient’s problem with her husband, and in bizarrely non-specific terms. ‘She’s a bit weepy, brooding over not having children,’ says one such medic. ‘You’re highly strung!’ he warns his patient. ‘It doesn’t mean you’re mad, even though your mother had to be locked away – in an INSANE ASYLUM!’ Thankfully, a few decades of female empowerment brought an end to the idea of delicate wives in fiction, along with the notion that an older woman was only interesting if she was deranged, but these paranoid paperbacks still make for fascinating reading.

The problem goes back a long way. Ignored, underrated, overlooked or taken for granted, the women who wrote popular fiction for a living were often simply grateful to be published at all. Writing ghost stories was an acceptable pastime for a Victorian lady, but crime was not. Women wrote because their families needed the money, or simply to amuse themselves. Sometimes they hid their gender behind initials.
Christie, Mitchell, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh wrote a very specific kind of crime novel, puzzle-strewn and quirky, but far removed from real life. The war helped to change attitudes to women writing crime. Virginia Ironside, Andrea Newman and Penelope Mortimer all darkened the tone with short crime fiction, while Elizabeth Lemarchand, the mistress of misdirection, unfolded a terrific scenario in ‘Time To Be Going’ - never have drawers full of blankets appeared so ominous. In Christine Brook-Rose’s ‘Red Rubber Gloves’ household washing-up items become instruments of murder viewed by a neighbour, and in Cressida Lindsay’s ‘Watch Your Step’ a drunken night out tips one young couple’s life out of balance when they discover their room the wrong way around.

Like Ruth Rendell and PD James, these authors were able to locate unease in the most mundane domestic settings. Their fictions were set in ordinary houses, and resonated with many wives who found themselves back behind the ironing board after a war during which they performed tasks equal to men. Consequently the tales often have a claustrophobic, trapped atmosphere in which heroines are treated dismissively by husbands. The police rarely feature in such tales, and the dramas are contained inside the home.
American women writers had more confidence than their UK counterparts, and became known as ‘The Lethal Sex’, branching out from the purely domestic. The new dark ladies rarely used the shock of explicit violence, trading instead on disturbing atmospheres, ill feelings, gathering evil, mournful eeriness, resonant encounters, doubted senses and personal hells.

Today women read more than men, and female authors have finally been accorded the prestige they always deserved. So you would think the idea of the female victim would have been finally laid to rest. Instead we get books with ‘girl’ in the title that reduce women to the status of teenagers once more.

Christopher Fowler is author of the novels.

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