My favorite literary genre is the mystery. I’m not a big fan of the “cozy”—the storylines of teacups and cats set in bookshops—but I don’t like sensationalist serial-killer stories, either. I don’t want to read loving descriptions of slow torture or the detached planning of sociopath rapists. This is not my idea of entertainment.
My favorites are those books that straddle a middle ground. I like the puzzle a mystery offers. I like a flawed detective. I enjoy good writing, unusual settings, and any time period. If there’s a secondary romance plot, so much the better.
After a year of not really enjoying anything I read, I just polished off in one week the first three books and four novellas in the Lady Julia Grey series by Deanna Raybourn. I’d been thinking about why this series, set in Victorian times, caught my fancy when so many other things did not in the past year. Lady Julia has a great deal of agency, Brisbane takes her seriously, and her large family—eccentrics all—is fun to read about. Also, the dialogue is good and the romance is slow-burning. So that’s all catnip for me.
In “Women Are Writing the Best Crime Novels” published by The Atlantic, author Terrence Rafferty suggests that male crime writers of the past—Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross MacDonald and their like—who wrote gritty private-eye stories populated by femme fatales, have given way to women writing dark, fatalistic psychological thrillers, a style launched by Patricia Highsmith.
Rafferty says that the old-style protagonist is still kicking but on life support. He points to George Pelecanos, Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson, and Michael Connelly as authors who still write interesting, if grim, investigations. He thinks it’s because men appear to need a hero of some kind to organize their stories around. Cops, lawyers, and freelance avengers (Lee Child’s Jack Reacher) he says, are about all that’s left.
Female writers, though, don’t much believe in heroes, Rafferty thinks, which makes their kind of storytelling a better fit for cynical times. Mysteries written by women are light on gunplay, heavy on emotional violence.
I tend to enjoy all these authors, male and female alike, although I think men alone write the blood-soaked rapist story that I won’t read. But Rafferty might have a point. What about you? In any genre, do you see women writing a different kind of protagonist than men?