I’m a reader because of Nancy Drew. Back in the Dark Ages when young adult fiction consisted of Sweet Valley High and Judy Blume, it was Nancy who got me reading. I liked the puzzle. I liked following the story and trying to unravel the mystery right along with Nancy, even if she did get herself tied up and thrown into car trunks every other book. So needless to say, once Nancy and I parted ways, it was the rows upon rows of mystery novels in my local public library that I moved on to. But perhaps, by then, I’d become accustomed to reading violence against women in my crime fiction? Well, maybe and maybe not.
A lot has been made of the fact that so many mystery/suspense novels feature violence against women (for instance, this Muderati post from Tess Gerritsen, a follow-up to views from Louise Ure and Val McDermid). If comments online are anything to go by, many readers are extremely bothered by this. It’s never bothered me. In fact, it’s never bothered me to the point that I’ve never really thought about it. After all, it was Mary Higgins Clark who wrote some of the first “adult” books I read as a teenager, and she’s the Grand Dame “women in peril” plots!
Does this make me a terrible feminist? No. And I’ll tell you why.
Genre fiction works so well because it hinges on what I call “The Here And Now.” Some of the first references I read to 9/11, the war on terror etc. —all were in genre fiction books. Violence against women, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, does exist in the real world. As a woman, there are just certain things I don’t do. Oh, like walk down a deserted street late at night by myself. But certainly, even with precautions, violence happens. It just does.
What makes women-in-jeopardy novels so compelling, is that while there may be one or more poor dead woman moving the plot forward, a lot of times there’s another woman on the page trying to solve the mystery and bring the perpetrator(s) to justice. I look back on all the mystery/suspense authors who have written books I’ve enjoyed over the years—Tess Gerritsen, Patricia Cornwell, Mary Higgins Clark, Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller—and in all their cases, while “bad things happen to women,” it’s a strong female lead who is cracking the case.
Yes, women are victims in these books, but they are also the heroines. They’re smart, resourceful. They’re fighting crime and bringing justice to those women who met a violent end. Is violence against women still troubling in the fictional as well as the real world? Yes. Should everyone be forced to read these books? No. But to dismiss them outright just because bad stuff happens to women, is not looking at the bigger picture. The bigger picture of why these books are popular. And I, for one, am not willing to concede that I have deep-seated, self-loathing, misogynistic tendencies.
Can women be the losers in these stories? Certainly. But they also can be the winners, and that’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Wendy Crutcher, Fighting For Truth, Justice and the Right to Read What You Want