Editors’ Choice: reviews of Jill Alexander Essbaum, Hausfrau, Rebecca Whitney, The Liar’s Chair, and Laura Lippman, After I’m Gone
Rebecca Whitney, writing in the Independent earlier this year, thoughtfully analyses the huge current appeal of domestic noir – our fascination with “the toxic marriage and its fall-out.” Several successful novels have fed this fascination by constructing ‘romance gone wrong’ plots in which a woman marries an intelligent, charismatic, chisel-featured homme fatale who, by the third act, has turned out to be a dangerous psychopath, multiple murderer and/or serial rapist. But what if the chosen partner is simply too dedicated to the role of the traditional husband – a man of business who is ambitious, overbearing, bossy and possessive?
In some of the most interesting recent examples of domestic noir, we follow the stories of women whose fates lie in the hands of such men, their lives distorted by a domineering partner who expects absolute fidelity. In two of the novels reviewed here, the man of the family not only forbids dissent but bullies and humiliates his wife, betraying her trust and driving her to desperation: Jill Alexander Essbaum, in her haunting psychological study, Hausfrau, conjures up a claustrophobic, repressive world in which a wife’s extreme submissiveness makes her “ill with inaction, a person sitting passively in a dark cinema”; Rebecca Whitney’s The Liar’s Chair is a tense, well-constructed domestic thriller that centres on the disintegrating relationship of an apparently prosperous, successful couple. Laura Lippman creates a more complex version of the unequal marriage in her wonderful, nuanced family drama, After I’m Gone, in which the patriarch is a criminal version of the forceful businessman. Having has “made his own game”, he will brook no challenge to the rules he plays by, and, when he absconds, the five women he leaves behind still lead lives dominated by the game he has created, in thrall to his myth and living in constant expectation that he will reach out or return to them.
Editors’ Choice: reviews of Harriet Lane, Her, Amanda Jennings, The Judas Scar, and Daniel Woodrell, The Maid’s Version
The protagonists of psychological thrillers are very often in thrall to the dark secrets of the past: characters go through their lives imprisoned by the past; or they take flight from it, imagining they can escape; or, just when they least expect it, someone from a former life resurfaces and threatens to destroy them. Harriet Lane’s superb, chilling novel Her begins with a chance meeting between two women whose lives were intertwined in the distant past. In Amanda Jennings’ gripping thriller The Judas Scar, the central relationship from the past is male rather than female, and, from the disturbing prologue on, the reader knows that male brutality and violence are at the core of both past and present narratives. Daniel Woodrell’s extraordinary piece of Southern noir, The Maid’s Version, gives us a past secret that is a communal tragedy rather than a private torment, and we hear the voices of an entire town as we try to untangle the lies and evasions that have proliferated in the decades following a dance hall explosion decades earlier. Read our reviews of Harriet Lane, Amanda Jennings and Daniel Woodrell.
Crime fiction has often been accused of indulging in the clichés of the dangerous and the endangered woman – the femme fatale, the female victim. The degree to which such generalisations oversimplify the genre is apparent if one reads the steadily growing number of women crime writers who, from the 1940s on, have created subtle, diverse explorations of a great range of female protagonists – from damaged children and wilful teenagers to deceived partners, oppressed housewives, guilty mothers, tough businesswomen. Increasingly in the twenty-first century, psychological thrillers have given readers a chance to enter into the subjective perceptions of non-stereotypical women in ways that subvert and reappropriate some of the most familiar and time-honoured generic conventions.
Our focus here is on teen-centred crime fiction. Some of the most highly regarded contemporary female crime writers have written compellingly about teenage experience – Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, Tana French. They represent transgression, resistance to constraints on female agency, dawning sexuality, and, above all, female friendship – being best friends and also, of course, betraying and destroying those friendships. Amongst recent novels, two of the outstanding examples of teen-centred psychological thrillers are Megan Abbott’s The Fever and Tana French’s The Secret Place. Read our reviews of Megan Abbott and Tana French.
Editors’ Choice: reviews of Christobel Kent, The Crooked House; D.D. Johnston, The Secret Baby Room; Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train; and Liane Moriarty, The Last Anniversary
A mark of good crime fiction is that readers can intensely experience the spaces through which the characters move or in which they are trapped. Whether they are in urban mean streets or small towns, buildings are more than background or setting. They can generate the fears and desires that drive characters to commit crimes; they conceal secrets and retain the impress of crimes committed; protagonists may dread to enter them or feel a false sense of security when they lock the doors. Three excellent recent crime novels construct gripping narratives that centre on the manifold ways in which buildings are perceived, experienced and remembered. In Christobel Kent’s atmospheric novel, The Crooked House, the house of the title is a gothic embodiment of past terrors, containing the lost narrative of a murdered family; in D. D. Johnston’s forthcoming The Secret Baby Room, an almost equally gothic building, a derelict tower block, summons up the protagonist’s worst fears; and in Paula Hawkins’ tense thriller, The Girl on the Train, what we’re led to reflect on is the deceptive uniformity, the apparent interchangeability of suburban houses, so blank that it is easy to miss their role in concealing disastrous and violent acts. Also reviewed is a novel first published a few years ago (2006), Liane Moriarty’s The Last Anniversary, a playful, enthralling mix of romance and mystery, in which houses stimulate desire and feed the imaginative hunger for enigmas. Read our reviews of Christobel Kent, D.D. Johnston, Paula Hawkins, and Liane Moriarty.
Editors’ Choice: reviews of Lauren Beukes, Broken Monsters; Lynn Kostoff, Words to Die For; and Paul Johnston, The Black List
The noir thriller has proven itself capable of powerfully depicting the breakdown of society and the human consequences of political evils, lies and betrayals. Contemporary urban disintegration, violence and economic collapse are at the heart of Lauren Beukes’ complex novel, Broken Monsters. Equally fascinating – and equally relevant to the political experiences of our own time – are two pieces of historical noir, both of which anatomise the treacherous political decisions, the crimes, guilts and corrosive allegiances of earlier eras. Lynn Kostoff’s Words to Die For, set in the deregulated corporate world of the Reagan era, plays out at an individual level its compromises and cynical deceptions; Paul Johnston’s The Black Life, which partly takes place in modern-day Greece, also encompasses the horrors of Nazism and the holocaust. All three novels stand out in my recent reading and exemplify the best qualities of the outward-looking crime story, which, as Andrew Pepper argues (Unwilling Executioner, forthcoming from OUP), “remains the most politically-minded of all the literary genres.” Read our reviews of Lauren Beukes, Lynn Kostoff’ and Paul Johnston.
CRIMEFEST: the international crime fiction convention
14 – 17 May 2015, Bristol, UK – With more than fifty events spanning four days, and the participation of close to 140 authors from around the world, CRIMEFEST may well be the UK’s biggest crime fiction convention! The CRIMEFEST PROGRAMME is now up on the website.
Orange is the New Black and New Perspectives on the Women in Prison Genre
5 June 2015, Edinburgh Napier University – Please follow this link to register: http://store.napier.ac.uk/browse/department.asp?compid=1&modid=1&deptid=24
Nordicana 2015: Nordic Noir & Beyond
6 – 7 June 2015, Roxy theatre, London – Addicts of Nordic crime dramas will be able to get their fix at the Roxy theatre in London for the 3rd Nordicana festival. The event promises a plethora of top talent from internationally famed writers to the brightest stars of film and television. Sofie Gråbøl, detective Sarah Lund in The Killing, is the first confirmed headlining guest. For the first time ever, Nordicana will also be recognising other top European shows influenced by the Nordic style. For more information visit the Nordicana website.
James Ellroy: Visions of Noir
1 – 3 July 2015, University of Liverpool – The conference will examine Ellroy’s influence on the genre, his inspirations as a writer and his achievements in forging an idiosyncratic and unique style. The keynote speaker is journalist and critic Woody Haut. In addition, there will be an event with distinguished crime novelist and lawyer Martin Edwards who will be discussing his new book, The Golden Age of Murder. Conference webpage: https://www.liv.ac.uk/english/our-events/ellroy/
Women, Narrative and Crime: An Interdisciplinary Conference
9th July 2015, Teesside University (Darlington Campus) – Keynote Speakers: Deborah Jermyn (Roehampton) & Lizzie Seal (Sussex). This interdisciplinary conference will bring to together researchers and practitioners from the arts, humanities and socials sciences to explore questions of narrative and crime in relation to violence against women, as well as addressing themes relating to women, crime and justice more broadly. See http://www.tees.ac.uk/sections/whats_on/events_details.cfm?event_id=7297
We’ve entered a season of retro pulp nostalgia here at Crimeculture. Our three new series feature crime writers, reviewers, critics and publishers. If you’d like to take part, please drop us a line.
My Misspent Youth
A series of short reminiscences from crime writers based around a memento from their childhood – a favourite novel, photograph, poster, toy, baseball card and so on – that is connected to their writing life. Our featured writers will be talking about the memories associated with their memento, about how they first came to be a writer and about their current projects.
In this series, we’ll feature contributors’ favourite crime novel covers and their explanation of why it’s their favourite. If you would like to contribute a cover, please send us the name (and an image, if available) of your favourite pulp cover along with 150 words or so describing what it is you love about it.
Crimeculture contributors discuss their favourite bad girls, femmes fatales, female villains and noir heroines drawn from the annals of crime fiction, film, comics, graphic novels and true crime… If you are interested in contributing, send us the name (and an image, if available) of your favourite bad girl along with 300 words or so about her.
Summer 2014 offers some great conferences, festivals and crime-related events. There are, of course, two excellent annual events scheduled in Bristol and Harrogate, the Crimefest convention and the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. In addition Crimeculture particularly recommends the Manchester ‘True Crime’ Conference (Call for Papers deadline 18th April), an inventive ‘Crime Story’ weekend in Newcastle, and, in Ohio, the Crime Studies Network’s ‘Evil Incarnate’ conference.
Now established as one of the best annual crime events, the international crime fiction convention, Crimefest, has a Programme that includes panels on locked rooms, women as victims, the modern thriller, the paranormal, political thrillers, the hired gun, Euro noir, psychotherapists and psychiatrists, plus interviews with Nicci French, Lars Kepler, Yrsa Sigurdardottir – and much else.
Spend a weekend getting under the skin of a fictional crime with top crime writers, criminologists, lawyers, police and forensics experts. See also the link on this page to the Northern Crime Competition.
David Schmid is the keynote speaker at this fascinating interdisciplinary conference which will explore the genre in its myriad incarnations. The programme is now online at http://www.hic-dragones.co.uk/true-crime-programme/
David McWilliam, who is presenting at and co-running True Crime: Fact, Fiction, Ideology, is interviewing Jean Murley on the Twisted Tales site. Jean Murley’s first book was The Rise of True Crime: 20th Century Murder and American Popular Culture and she is currently working on a book about wrongful conviction in America, tentatively titled Collateral Damage: The Outrage of Wrongful Conviction: Eight Families’ Stories.
Since the 1920s, women have been among the most prolific and influential authors of crime fiction. Some of the best-known heroes and anti-heroes of fiction are also women. This conference will address the relationship of gender and genre, past and present, and the known and the unknown. Keynote speakers: Val McDermid and Dr Lee Horsley.
The Crime Studies Network is a group devoted to the interdisciplinary study of representations of crime. In 2014, it is holding its first conference outside the UK. With keynote speakers from the disciplines of Religious Studies, Justice Administration and Film Studies, the conference asks what defines villainy and how villains are represented.
“For one long, sultry, summer weekend the temperature in Harrogate rises whatever the weather as the world’s hottest celebration of crime writing swings into town.” This year’s festival has a stellar line-up, including Ann Cleeves, Robert Galbraith, Sophie Hannah, John Harvey, Lynda LaPlante, Laura Lippman, Peter May, Val McDermid, Denise Mina and S. J. Watson.
As is traditional, Bristol was bathed in gorgeous sunshine just in time for its annual international crime fiction convention, CrimeFest: lovely weather for a bit of murder and mayhem!
I arrived on Saturday because of work, so I missed a few of the panels I’d been looking forward to, but I thought the ones I did manage to see on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning were fantastic. Many intriguing insights into crime writing partnerships emerged from Maxim Jakubowski‘s interview with Nicci French and Lars Keplar. “Ideas for our books come out of our marriage…sometimes literally,” said Sean French of Nicci French, “When collaboration works, it’s a bit like folie à deux.”
I thought this was a wonderfully evocative (if somewhat scary) description of the collaborative writing process! We’ve long been fans of Nicci French’s stand-alones and were excited to hear more details of her/their series detective novels as well as Stalker, the latest offering in Lars Keplar’s Joona Linna series.
Martyn Waites‘ interview with Mark Billingham was an entertaining event, full of banter between the two former roommates and lively discussion of everything from police procedurals to seafood slaughterers and dachshund detectives. There was a good deal more easygoing banter mixed in with quantities of hard liquor as the evening progressed and it was lovely to get a chance to catch up with old friends and chat to writers I’ve read or known on social media but never met in the flesh before.
As hangovers abounded on Sunday morning (causing some writers to don their sunglasses indoors), I went to watch Kevin Wignall interview special guest author Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Crimeculture are long-time fans of Kevin’s writing (both as a crime writer and as YA author K J Wignall), but neither of us had read Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s work before. I don’t know why, because it sounds brilliant and just our sort of thing. I hugely enjoyed this event – which careened from the bloodcurdling to the hilarious and back again – and was fascinated to hear about the influence of The Handbook of Infectious Tropical Diseases on Yrsa’s writing… not to mention Struwwelpeter, Father Christmas’s scary mother and “the charm of horrible things”.
I haven’t been to CrimeFest for a couple of years and was amazed at how much the convention has grown, with standing room only at many of the events. Despite the swell in numbers, I was happy to see that CrimeFest hadn’t lost the intimate, convivial atmosphere and easygoing vibe that made it such an enjoyable event when it first began.
Increasing numbers of contemporary books, articles and conference papers have been devoted to analysing crime and detective fiction within a wide variety of cross-cultural contexts. Critics focus on the diversity of the genre and on the manifold ways in which generic tropes are being transformed as they take on different cultural and national identities. Studies such as these shed light on one of the main reasons for the genre’s durability: as Kate Horsley writes in “Contemporary African Crime Fiction”, “Detective fiction has remained a resilient and versatile genre because of its capacity to raise difficult questions about corruption and moral failure. It represents the investigation of individual crimes but can also work to expose the failures, traumas and brutalities of political and social life.”
This Autumn Crimeculture is featuring some of the best of the 2012-13 publications on cross-culture crime and detective fiction. The following books and articles are reviewed and highly recommended:
Berit Åström, Katarina Gregersdotter and Tanya Horeck (eds), Rape in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and Beyond: Contemporary Scandinavian and Anglophone Crime Fiction, Palgrave Macmillan, October 2012