5 Feminist Crime Novels That Don't Reduce Female Characters To Victims
As a former bookseller — and eternal avid reader — I've encountered more crime novels than most. And I've got stronger feelings about crime novels than most, too; specifically, I'm profoundly angry about the treatment of women across a large swathe of the genre. While the following certainly isn't true of all thrillers, too often women are reduced to brutalised victims, voiceless bodies, and convenient lenses through which the complex, tormented male protagonist may be viewed (please, spare me another relentless male detective with a haunted past). But there's an alternative! Read one (or more!) of these five feminist crime novels, and never suffer through gratuitous violence against women again!
So what, exactly, constitutes a feminist crime novel? I'll admit to inventing my own, fairly loose, criteria. The novels below don't glory in the many horrifying ways women can be attacked; they don't set up flimsy female characters only to write them to a viciously unpleasant end. Instead, they prioritise the voices and interior lives of their female characters. They take an insightful, occasionally subversive approach to the crimes they depict (and when they're inspired by true events, they go beyond media sensationalism). And another guarantee? Every one of the five novels below is a thoroughly excellent read.
'The Cutting Season' by Attica Locke
Locke's protagonist, Caren Gray, grew up at the plantation house where she now works as a manager, as the daughter of its former cook. Now, it's a tourist attraction, staging profoundly problematic "living history" plays and hosting the parties of wealthy white people. But when the body of a Latina migrant worker is found on the grounds of the plantation, Caren resolves to spotlight the many injustices its owners have attempted to conceal.
'The Girls' by Emma Cline
Cline's debut novel is closely influenced by well-trodden ground in the crime genre — Charles Manson and the murders committed by the cult around him — but her take is new and compelling. Her narrator is Evie, a 14-year-old girl grappling with the emotional turmoil arising from her parents' divorce, as well as the broader turmoil of adolescence. It's her teenage search for identity that draws her to cult leader Suzanne — and as a result, the horrifying acts of the Manson cult begin to seem a lot less inscrutable to anyone who was once a teenage girl.
'Lullaby' by Leïla Slimani
Inspired by the New York murder of two children by their nanny in 2012, Slimani's novel addresses conceptions of race, class, and gender as it traces the origins of an unspeakable crime. The novel opens with the murder of two young children by their nanny, Louise; rather than figuring out who killed the two young children of Parisians Myriam and Paul, Slimani concerns herself with why. You'll be left in no doubt as to why Lullaby won the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary award.
'The Long Drop' by Denise Mina
I've established an accidental theme with my selections in this article: like The Girls and Lullaby, The Long Drop is also based on a real-life series of murders. Mina fictionalises the crimes of Glasgow serial killer Peter Manuel, who massacred seven people — including the wife, sister-in-law, and daughter of subsequent prime suspect William Watt. But it's the victims and their families who comprise the heart of Mina's evocative novel.
'My Sister, the Serial Killer' by Oyinkan Braithwaite
First, an apology: Braithwaite's novel isn't available in the UK until January, but it's the first thing you should buy with any Christmas book vouchers. The narrator, Korede, is a nurse with an unofficial second job: cleaning up the murders committed by her beautiful younger sister, Ayoola. Ayoola, like her sister, has suffered unforgivable abuse at the hands of men — but is she killing for vengeance, or simply for pleasure?