There’s been a good old-fashioned stushie recently, on Twitter and elsewhere, about a new literary prize for crime novels that eschew violence against women. The Staunch Book Prize, launched earlier this year, will be awarded to a ‘novel in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered’.
In part, the award builds on a Radio 4 Documentary, ‘Body Count Rising’, written and presented by Doon Mackichan, one of the inaugural judges of the Staunch Prize. In the documentary, Mackichan argues that women in crime dramas are too often treated as ‘objects, inanimate pieces of flesh to be abused, raped, killed’ and that ‘television culture has made rape and the ritualistic murder of women an industry unto itself’.
Responses to the prize among UK crime writers have been forthright and mixed. It is, says Val McDermid, her own anger at violence against women that fuels much of her work: ‘As long as men commit appalling acts of misogyny and violence against women, I will write about it’. Adrian McKinty demurred, tweeting that there is ‘too much lurid, esp sexual violence against women & kids in crime fict. Having this prize at least makes writers think about more creative ways of telling their story’.
McDermid was having none of that. Curtly dismissing McKinty’s argument (‘Baby, bathwater’), she expressed her resentment, as someone who has explored these issues in complex narrative fictions over a long and distinguished career, at being lumped in with the ‘pornographers of violence’. A host of front-rank crime writers (Sarah Hilary, Sophie Hannah, Denise Mina) sided with McDermid.
I have massive respect for McDermid and McKinty, both as crime writers and human beings. I agree with McDermid that violence against women should be treated with sensitivity in crime fiction rather than avoided altogether, but I’m also uncomfortable, as a male crime writer, with the familiar noir scenario of active male detective investigating inert female corpse.
In my day job as a literature professor, I teach creative writing. Recently in class, we talked through some of the issues raised by the Staunch Prize, and tried to come up with some rules of thumb for treating violence against women with due sensitivity in crime fiction.
Here are some of the suggestions:
- Avoid titillation in depicting sexual violence. Have violence happen off-stage, where appropriate.
- Deal with the consequences of sexual violence, for the victim as well as for the police. If a rape is part of your plot, deal with the victim’s response to and recovery from that trauma, and don’t just focus on the police investigation.
- Include women characters other than the victim. Don’t just have a group of male detectives investigating the murder of a woman.
- Try to suggest something of the victim’s depth of character. Humanise the victim. Show us the woman as a woman, not just a victim. Let us, if possible, hear her voice.
- Show us a victim who has agency and strength, who is not simply a sacrificial lamb or a plot point.
- Consign the virgin/whore dichotomy to the lowest pit of hell.
These are, it seems to me, pretty useful rules of thumb. But while debating these issues in an academic context, I also have something at stake here. My own forthcoming novel, The Quaker, will not be a contender for the Staunch Prize. It is loosely based on the Bible John murders – a series of sex killings that took place in late 1960s Glasgow.
I have, however, tried to avoid reducing the murdered women to plot points, and have sought to let their voices sound. Some of the chapters in The Quaker are narrated by dead women, victims of the titular killer. In these chapters, the women are not simply reflecting on their murders (though they do a bit of that), but are talking about what mattered to them while they were alive, in the days before they became a name on a police poster, a captioned photo in the paper.
The dead narrator is a device used to great effect by writers like Alice Sebold, Scott Blackwood and Rosetta Allan. I’m not sure how easily it sits in a crime novel, but you can judge for yourself when The Quaker comes out.