Kay: Reading Crime Fiction

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?

 

One thought on “Kay: Reading Crime Fiction

  1. Oooh, eccentric family? One of my favorite short stories is James Thurber’s “The Night the Bed Fell on Father” which illustrated a rainbow of family eccentrics in a few short pages. LOVED it. I will have to check this out once I’ve got my current reading list whittled down a little more. (I’m into KJ Charles these days, and she’s so prolific.)

    SFF has gotten a lot of criticism for the female characters written by men in the “Golden Age” but even in the Golden Age, a lot of them men were trying. The women had JOBS for goodness’ sake. Some SFF writers have shown a lot of willing to regard both men and women as alien species, and really observe what takes place, and then try to transfer that to the story.

    So I think it can be said that some men in SFF are trying to write like women.

    OTOH, women have been trying to write like men for ages. I don’t know if they get much of anywhere with it; I can’t really think of any famous “she writes like a man” books, although I know there’s at least one written under a male penname where people said that. (George Eliot? Or, there’s always good old “Louis McMaster Bujold” — people who can’t believe a “Lois” wrote these books, I guess.)

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