Crimes Against Fiction

Crime-writers are encouraged to fill their pages with sadistic misogyny because it sells

When a female corpse appeared on the jacket of a crime-writing colleague’s new book, she pointed out to her publisher that the victim in the story was actually a man. Never mind that, came the reply, dead, brutalised women sell books, dead men don’t. Nor do dead children or geriatrics. Which explains why an increasing proportion of the crime fiction I am sent to review features male perpetrators and almost invariably female victims — series of them.  Each psychopath is more sadistic than the last and his victims’ sufferings are described in detail that becomes ever more explicit, as young women are imprisoned, bound, gagged, strung up or tied down, raped, sliced, burned, blinded, beaten, eaten, starved, suffocated,  stabbed, boiled or buried alive. 

The trend cannot be attributed to an anti-feminist backlash because the most inventive fiction of this kind is written by women. They are, one explained, best qualified to do so because girls grow up knowing that being female is “synonymous with being prey”.

What a long way we have come from Agatha Christie’s body in the library with a neat round hole in its forehead, or from a time when a fictional kicking could incense Margery Allingham’s editor: “Fighting with feet is the beginning of sadism. Tear that thing up, go home and write something clean!” Fifty years on, no cruel detail is left undescribed, no obscenity unsaid, for few crime writers still believe that the dark is more frightening than what it conceals. Of course, crime fiction’s function is to frighten, as well as to interest, entertain and enlighten us, but disgust is an unwelcome extra. 

Authors must be free to write and publishers to publish. But critics must be free to say they have had enough. So however many more outpourings of sadistic misogyny are crammed on to the bandwagon, no more of them will be reviewed by me.

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