Why Isn’t The Crime Novel Catching Up?
This piece stems from a compliment the author Katherine Stansfield paid to me last week. She said; ‘You manage to write crime novels without meanness.’
We grew up with unthinking sexism as the norm, often benign, sometimes pernicious. From the James Bond novels to the Carry On films we laughed as ugly men were surrounded by sexualised young women. In the nation’s companies, women were mainly secretaries recording the words of men, employed to be decorative and silent. To the marketeers, men went to work and women stayed home. ‘We travel Intercity like the men do,’ sang an army of housewives who dared to board a train without their husbands in an Intercity Rail commercial. The housewife/sexpot paradigm, not much of an advance from ancient madonna/whore tropes, became so embedded in creative culture that it can still be found today in bad TV commercials.
Lasting change takes an age to filter through, but for every Ian Fleming, having his heroes slapping girl’s bottoms and describing them in terms reserved for racehorses, there were writers who had already rejected ingrained sexism. I lost count of the number of times I was asked to add a pretty young girl to various pieces of work ‘for window dressing’. Barbara Windsor must have felt the same in the above photoshoot from ‘Carry On Girls’ (what could possibly have influenced the decision to get three of the top row to lean forward like that?). It was one of the reasons why we introduced a ‘No Sexism, No Racism, No Homophobia’ policy into my company in its very early days. I remember having to hide the names of female copywriters when presenting to Rank Films because they said women didn’t understand male-oriented movies.
UK television was slow to catch up because it was dominated by a state channel, the BBC, which was stuffed with old-school duffers. We still reflected music hall tropes in our output, and continue to this day in some ways. It has always been fine for your male star to appear in drag because it’s embedded in our popular history, but the sight of Dick Emery holding up two melons and inviting smutty comments now seems unfunny.
So how best can we reflect the latest and biggest feminist advance in our popular culture? Well, positive role models are so easy (if creatively lazy) to produce on TV that they no longer excite comment, but books are proving trickier.
This week I received a stack of review copies of new crime thrillers, written by male and female authors. Their plots involve murdered sex workers, a mother and daughter locked up in a basement, a girl tortured to death, child abuse and rape. Strong females are represented in at least two of the books as shrill, bossy women. A few hastily added remarks aren’t enough to turn an old plot into a modern one.
The lead time for novels is such that publishers may not yet have caught up, and writers should be free to write as they see fit, but there’s an inexcusable mountain of slasher-trash out there, dressed up with tasteful covers so that they can sit of WH Smith shelves. How long will it be before crime writers decide to bury their worst clichés and attempt new stories?
It would be awful if we ended up with 300-page feminist arguments instead of taut thrillers, but surely it’s possible to write exciting tales without torturing a sex worker in so many first chapters?