The Year of Reading Women: Crime Fiction

It’s the Year of Reading Women, everyone!

It looks like the publishing world is not a great place for women, and neither is the world of literary criticism. It’s a deeply depressing picture that emerged from a 2013 study by Vida, an organisation for women in the literary arts. One that we all probably suspected was true, but the figures still look frightening. Personally, I’d have thought the gender gap wasn’t that big, with women taking the Booker Prize three times in the last five years, but the fact that Hilary Mantel’s gender needed to be mentioned in every news article about her 2012 win says a lot about such perceived equality. In a world where it’s still news that a woman has won a big prize twice, work needs to be done.

Enter Jonathan Gibbs and Matthew Jakubowski. Bear with me here… While it may still take two men to get people interested in the subject, which is infuriating, it was Joanna Walsh’s #readwomen2014 project that got the widespread media attention. Does that make it all right? I say, whatever it takes. I’m not a friend of being told how to do my good deeds, so I certainly won’t shun any promising literature written by male authors this year, but as far as awareness goes, the Year of Reading Women is a good start. I was already five books into my reading year when I came across the project, and a quick check told me I had read ALL WOMEN so far. Go me!

A major factor contributing to this apparent dodging of a trend is my return to comfort reading in the form of crime and detective novels. Women simply seem to have it nailed. Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and my beloved Josephine Tey started a trend that does not show any sign of easing. Patricia Highsmith, Donna Leon, P.D. James… The list goes on. Simply based on what I have been reading lately, here are some recommendations to keep you going for a few months.

Fred Vargas

The Fred in question is a Frédérique, an excellent French writer and my latest literary obsession. Actually, Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau is a medieval historian and archaeologist first and writer second, but I’m glad she’s kept going with the novelling work. Her detective, Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg of the Parisian serious crime squad, is a man of delightfully bizarre methods. Nowhere near as dark and brooding as most of his literary colleagues, he is in fact described as a man drifting with the clouds: thoughts, genius or not, seem to come and go around his head without rhyme or reason. He solves his cases by simply walking around a lot and pondering the world, before acting on an impulse. This makes for brilliant and refreshing reading, because the narration often wanders around in just the same peripatetic way. For some readers, it might be confusing, perhaps even infuriating, but for me, it’s pure genius. It’s French! Of course it’s delightfully strange! Adamsberg’s latest case, The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, is my favourite. Do read The Three Evangelists first though, it will set the stage nicely.

Elizabeth George

I have a friend who has been religiously following Elizabeth George’s work since our high school years. Which explains her creaking, overflowing bookshelves, because George’s books are heavyweights. Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, Lord Asherton, was first introduced in 1988, and has made his way through 18 volumes of murder and painstakingly plotted psychological undergrowth, all set in England. Lynley and his partner, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, are from opposite ends of the social spectrum, and their friendship is at the core of George’s novels. Social problems play an ever larger part in the novels, so much that I found some of the more recent ones overthought and unsubtle in their approach. The older ones, however, have all the bloody, pitchforked bodies you need, along with a wonderfully unhealthy dose of dysfunctional family histories. Start with Well-Schooled in Murder, and you’ll never be the same again.

Martha Grimes

Another American setting her stories in England, Martha Grimes manages to portray a country that I’d love to visit one day, but still haven’t found. All her detective novels are named after pubs, and her characters inhabit their own world, which could be anywhere. But Martha Grimes’ novels have been my comfort reads since the ’90s, and are one of the reasons I came to England. While her detective, Inspector Richard Jury of Scotland Yard, is not an aristocrat, his wacky friend Melrose Plant, the Earl of Caverness, is. They are both loveable, gentle men, given to brooding and unrequited love, and their friends and colleagues are equally likeable. While none of this screams “high literature!”, Grimes must be applauded for pulling it off time after time: I got to Jury’s 20th case before I gave up. The cases are watertight, with surprising endings, the characters are charming even in their predictability, and the children are adorable. Yes, there are a lot of cute, clever children. And dogs. But then the dogs start telling their own stories, and that’s where you should stop reading. My favourite? The Old Silent. It’s actually beautiful. Her England may not exist, but I sure wish it did.

Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine

Somewhat more realistically, Ruth Rendell’s Chief Inspector Wexford deals with crimes in the fictional town of Kingsmarkham in Sussex. Over the course of her novels, Rendell introduces all kinds of social changes and problems the inhabitants of the small town deal with. Her social commentary, like Elizabeth George’s, does get a bit much when you read too many novels in a row, but Rendell is an excellent writer, and Wexford is a genuinely nice cop. More importantly though, Rendell also writes non-Wexford novels, mostly set in London, that deal with all kinds of strange characters and explores their psychological depths. As Barbara Vine, Rendell also explores historical crime cases and even more complex psychological matters, and those books are truly great. The Keys to the Street is one of my all-time favourite books, and Grasshopper is equally memorable. More than Martha Grimes’ fake, idyllic England, these books have made me want to go there. Macabre? Maybe. But read King Solomon’s Carpet, and you’ll want to live near a tube station. I dare you.

Who are your favourite ladies of crime? Strangely enough, Scandinavian crime fiction seems to be overwhelmingly male. Did I miss something there? I’m always grateful for recommendations, but now excuse me while I read the latest Ruth Rendell…

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Karo

Schnazzy East German translator and cricket obsessive residing in England. I have other qualities, too.

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