The genre of crime fiction and suspense was started by men, Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle lead the way, but female writers took the genre and shaped and expanded it throughout the 20th century. Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap play ran on the London’s West-end stage from 1952 to 2020 and she remains to this day one of the best- selling authors. Although there are still popular male crime writers; lee Child and Ian Rankin to name a couple, it does appear to be a women’s game.
Male crime fiction was very much about guns, knives and violence with a male Hero, like a maverick private eye. Women were often written into the plot as secretaries, wife’s or victims, only ever in a supporting never a starring role. On the other hand, women play the leading roles in fiction written by women like Kathy Reich’s, Patricia Cornwall and Alex Cava, the female characters are strong, independent and often in charge! Some popular male detectives like Inspector Wexford by Ruth Rendall and Adam Dalglish by PD James are written by woman but are more well-rounded characters because of it. A women writer, the brilliant Phoebe-Walker-Bridge, the screen writer of Killing Eve, is currently working on the James Bond films. Hopefully her female parts will echo Villanelle rather than the out-dated roles played by Bond Girls.
Rather than been about cops and robbers, the good guys taking on the bad guys, the plots are more physiologically acute in women’s books, often about emotional violence. It can seem lighter in depth but in fact, a nastier and more prolonged death is usually penned by a female writer. Ian Rankin criticised Val McDermid for the graphic depictions of violence in her stories, however her books and the TV show Wire in the Blood based on her work continues to be popular. Some men probably feel that women should not like crime fiction, but 80% of the sales in this market are from women rather than men..
In the last 15 years many of the best selling crime writers are woman, Patricia Cornwall has sold 100 million copes of her books, Minette Edwards has had many of her books used as screenplays for TV series, Kathy Reich’s, has assisted with Bones, the forscenic science drama, based on her books, Paula Hawkins book Girl on the Train, was a big hit on screen and in print. So much so, that some male crime writers have written books with female pseudonyms to break into this popular genre.
Why do women write successful crime? Do women have a better grasp of human complexities, so they can create in-depth characters that are authentic? Do women understand living in fear, do they control more rage, angry and aggression inside, which comes out in their work. It has been said that the writing styles of woman are Killing from the Outside. I guess there is more build-up of plot and suspense. I always love a crime book that gives me a few surprizes, even an odd red herring or two and that I can’t stop reading until the story reaches its conclusion.
There is something thought- provoking about Crime and Suspense fiction, you need to use some powers of deduction yourself, like all the best fictional detectives, male or female. I thought this continues to be the case for a long time yet!