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?

13 comments on “Why Isn’t The Crime Novel Catching Up?”

  1. Brooke says:

    For reading through such a stack of books, I applaud you and hope you had something very good, old and expensive to drink to soothe you.

  2. Peter Tromans says:

    Why isn’t the world catching up?

    I’ve know half a dozen women of great talent and as good as any male. They all worked for a business that actively promoted females. But were they recognised? No, the company preferred women of limited ability. They were even worse at promoting good women than good men!

    It’s not just women. Yes, the world is run mainly by men, most of whom are well over 50 and all over 40. Almost all males past 40 are suffering dormant follicles. Why aren’t the leaders of the western world?

  3. Ken Mann says:

    Coincidentally to your point, one of the women unaccountably leaning forward was also slapped on the bottom by Sean Connery in Goldfinger. Small world.

  4. Wayne Mook says:

    The odd thing about this is that most readers are female, so I wonder what they think there target audience is and wants? Some of my favourite crime stories are The Father Brown tales that don’t include murder.

    I remember my mother read the Pan Books of Horror, one a picture of a man’s head in a bucket/hat box, the man looked very much like my dad. Mum used to leave by the side of their bed.


  5. Denise Treadwell says:

    I don’t care for gruesome details, we have enough of that in murder cases on t.v. news programs. I never liked the pathetic sexist jokes in the ‘Carry On’ films. But I did enjoy Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey’ antics, they were quite comical. James Bond films were never like Ian Fleming ‘s books, the films were a bit more exciting with the visual effects of car wrecks and hypothetical drama.

  6. Peter Tromans says:

    I’ve never particularly enjoyed Bond in film or book. Always felt that Honor Blackman’s portrayal of Miss Galore, with all its contradictions, deserved a series of movies much more than Connery’s JB.

  7. Ian Luck says:

    I never really ‘got’ Drag acts, although my late father did know Danny La Rue slightly, and said he was a nice bloke. There’s a nice anecdote about him in comedian/comedy writer/legend Barry Cryer’s autobiography. Cryer says that Danny was performing his act in a club in the west end. There were a load of squaddies in the audience, enjoying the show, with everybody else – except one, who was very drunk, and started heckling Danny, who ignored him up to the point when the heckler stood up, and bellowed: “Get off the stage, you great pouf!” Danny, in full regalia and slap,sashayed over to the heckler, and knocked him out with a single punch, saying: “I’m not a great pouf – I’m a female impersonator.”, and continued with his act to a great round of applause.

  8. Ian Luck says:

    Ken – you’re quite correct. The lady in question (on the far right of the picture) is Margaret Nolan, who appeared as ‘Dink’ in the 1964 movie ‘Goldfinger’. She’s still alive, and an artist, by the way.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Have just finished “Radio Girls” a novel about the BBC of 1928-29. The author, an American, has her Canadian-American heroine get a job as secretary at the BBC and works in Talks under its great female leader, in spite of puritan Sir John. The point was made that the BBC had no problem with hiring women and paid them the same as men, but some of the conversations in some departments and the attitude of the Director General were something appalling. It is amusing watching Hilda persuading Virginia Woolf to come and talk about women writers and even more interesting watching the resulting kerfuffle when Vita Sackville West shifts her interest to Hilda and Virginia declines to broadcast with only a couple of hours’ notice. H.G. Welles is given the script instead. I do wonder what the percentage of female employees above the level of typist was.

  10. Denise Treadwell says:

    Who is the author please Helen?

  11. Ian Luck says:

    Loosely connected to my Danny La Rue comment, in fact, tenuously attached by a smack in the mouth, was the time when rock band, The Strolling Bones… I’m sorry, I’ll read that again, The Rolling Stones were in a press conference after a tour. It was obvious that they were all sick to the back teeth of each other, when Mick Jagger said: “This is Charlie Watts – he’s my drummer.” The dapper and urbane Watts had obviously had a gutful of Jagger’s primadonna antics during the last few months, and this was the last straw. He stood up, punched Jagger in the head, knocking him out, saying, as he did so: “This is Mick Jagger – he’s MY fucking singer”, and walked off.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Denise, the author of Radio Girls is Sarah-Jane Stratford. It’s published in the New American Library by Penguin Random House. I never know when to stop when giving a publisher these days. It used to be there was a name with address attached in London or New York and with offices in (most of the Commonwealth) and a few other places. Now it’s some cutesy name, an imprint of ####, a Division of %%%%, a subsidiary of ****, and probably ending with Times Warner. Sorry about all that. This book’s publisher ends with Penguin Random House. Does that mean that Penguin is now owned by Random House? That sounds a little familiar as a matter fact. (Shut up, Helen.)

  13. Denise Treadwell says:

    Might be , I don’t understand the mystery of publishers, there are so many books I can’t get, I can’t help feeling we are being censored.

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