Women and crime fiction
Q. For an article in Crime Time, Barry Forshaw asked Minette: why are women so conspicuously good at writing crime fiction? And why do so many women read it?
A. Before I knew anything about P D James, I read her books thinking she was a man. I really think the writer’s personality can be androgynous. And in my own book The Echo, I had some welcome compliments on my use of the male protagonists. But then, I live with a husband and two sons, so male thinking is very much a part of my life – and shouldn’t a good writer be constantly observing people, whatever their sex?
In America, people often say to me it’s amazing how well women are doing in the British crime novel, so this is seen to be a geographical thing as much as anything else. It should also be remembered that there was a time when male writers couldn’t get published in Britain, so great was the grip of the three main female crime writers: Christie, Marsh and Sayers. So whichever sex is doing well, the success of crime writers is both a temporal and a geographical thing.
Emotionally damaged characters
Q. I am a 37-year-old English Studies undergraduate, preparing my dissertation about your novels – they are superbly written. I have one question: Often your ‘heroes’ are as emotionally fraught or damaged as the culprits within your novels. What are your main reasons for creating them this way? [I am thinking of Ros in The Sculptress or Andy McLoughlin in The Ice House, for example.]
A. Dear Samantha:
Thank you for this. I believe we are all flawed in different ways. Most of us disguise it well, but at times of crisis our flaws begin to show. Because violent death – even to a bystander – is deeply appalling and often frightening, the cracks in a personality will show fairly quickly. In terms of my novels (Ros in The Sculptress, Mrs Ranelagh in The Shape of Snakes or Jonathan in Disordered Minds), it is the emotional damage these protagonists have suffered that draws them into championing someone else’s cause. Not only do they have an understanding of what the other person has suffered, but it forces them to put their own circumstances into perspective. It’s the old saying, there’s always someone worse off than you!
Q. I am a student at a teaching institution in New Zealand. I am currently doing a paper called “Voices of Women”, and we look at different genres from women authors. We have just started doing individual case studies on an author of our choice and I choose you as my subject. I have read all your books and I think they are brilliant! I especially enjoyed The Sculptress. I found the character of Olive Martin fascinating.
Could you please tell me what some of the themes are in your stories. Do you think you write as a voice for women? And are there any social issues that have impacted on any of your stories at the time you wrote them?
— Amie, in New Zealand
A. Dear Amie:
It sounds an interesting paper! I write about and explore the different forms of prejudice in modern society. This has led me to use real social issues as a backdrop to some of the stories – e.g. the Stephen Lawrence murder in The Shape of Snakes and, more recently, the war in Iraq in Disordered Minds. I hope I’m a voice for women, principally in the strength that I give to my female characters and in the issues that I write about. Watch out for my new book The Devil’s Feather, which centres entirely on the dangers women face when the moral bases of society are destroyed by war.
US vs UK writing styles
Q. Hello, my name is Paul. I am in grade 12 and have selected your book The Sculptress as one of the books for my independent study unit. I would be honoured and truly grateful if you could answer a couple questions about your book that would aid me in writing my essay.
1. Do you feel that American and British writers have contrasting writing styles?
2. What do you feel are some of the similarities and contrasts between the way American and British writers develop their characters and plots? — Paul, in Canada
A. Dear Paul:
I’m honoured that you’ve chosen The Sculptress for your independent study unit, and I hope the following answers will help you with your essay.
I think it’s too much of a generalisation to say that American and British crime writers have contrasting styles. However, I do think that our very different cultures and geography lead to very different “takes” on the way we devise plots and characters. Both countries have writers who explore every branch of the genre – hard-boiled, psychological, gangster, police procedural, private detective, etc. – but the obvious differences lie in the tapestries the writers use as the backdrop to their novels.
For example: handguns are illegal in the UK therefore any plot involving them must necessarily be about criminals/gangs, will probably focus on drugs or prostitution and will be set in a city. Not so in the US where handguns are commonly and legally owned and can feature in any branch of the genre. In addition, although we have specialist armed police units in the UK, our policemen still only carry truncheons/batons. This makes for an easier/less threatening relationship with the public, which is why they’re often portrayed as “older and wiser” in UK novels (c.f. Inspectors Morse, Wexford and Dalgleish).
The UK is tiny compared to the US – indeed, we are tiny compared to most US states. We have national newspapers, national broadcasting and various centralised police computers/facilities, all of which are brought to bear on a single murder – which is why so few of them remain unsolved. Currently, our strike-rate for murder convictions is not far under 100% – which is pretty impressive – and I don’t believe it’s as high in the US. In the UK some 90% of all victims are either related to or know their killers.
In simple terms, a Brit is more likely to be murdered by someone who professes to love them than they are by a stranger. I believe it’s a lower figure in the US – you’ll have to do some research – with something like 25% of murders being committed by strangers – which is why serial killer thrillers/gangland thrillers tend to work better there than they do here.
Hope this sparks some thoughts of your own!
Q. I have only recently begun to read your works and must say that I have been extremely pleased. I notice that recently you have included “people of colour” in your books. For me, this has been a refreshing change. In my minimal knowledge of mystery writers (who are not black), authors tend to allude to one’s race, whereas you address some of the issues associated with race. Why do you do this? Is this a deliberate choice or just something that has evolved?
A. Dear Rosemarie:
All my books deal with different kinds of prejudice, so it was inevitable that I would write one about racism. That book was The Shape of Snakes. It was followed by Acid Row, which has a rather splendid black character, Jimmy, as one of the heroes. I chose him to balance the somewhat negative image of Annie Butts in The Shape of Snakes, whom I painted throughout as a victim. Fox Evil has no black characters but because racism isn’t always a clear-cut issue, I returned to it in Disordered Minds where Jonathan, half-Jamaican/half-Chinese, is more racist against blacks than most white people. So, in answer to your question, my choice of colour for characters is deliberate!
Q. As I studied English Literature at university, I am often asked ‘who’s your favourite writer?’, and I always answer Minette Walters, as you are the only novelist that I have kept on reading and re-reading. So, thank you for many entertaining novels and complex characters, and good luck with finishing your current novel, I hope that the writing is going well.
Your novels have featured a number of different (topical) topics from racism to paedophilia, senility to fox-hunting. Homosexuality has been referred to briefly in a number of your novels, from the “lesbian” rumours in The Ice House, to the gay pornography in The Breaker to the younger ‘paedophile’ in Acid Row. I feel that the way that you have portrayed homosexuality shows that you do have an understanding/ sympathy with it, and that you see the stigma attached to it from certain sections of the community, but there has yet to be a positive role model included in your novels for the homosexual reader.
In reply to the previous reader’s question, you wrote that you created the strong black character in Acid Row in order to balance out the negative associations that Annie Butts had in The Shape of Snakes. Can we expect a similar positive gay/ lesbian character/ storyline in a future novel?
A. Dear Chris:
Thank you so much for this. I am sincerely flattered to be your favourite author and hope you will continue to enjoy my books. As you clearly appreciate, I write about groups/individuals who are/have been marginalised by the rest of society, and this doesn’t always make pleasant reading for people who identify with those groups since I try to show the prejudice and ignorance that surrounds them.
Sadly, as I never reveal stories before they’re published, I’m afraid you’ll have to keep reading to see if I take your point on board! I’m still considering a letter from a psoriasis sufferer who objected to my giving the complaint to a character in The Scold’s Bridle, and several from overweight ladies who felt my portrayal of Olive Martin in The Sculptress was injurious to the extra-large. However, the hardest balance to redress will be the gun-owning lady from Canada who wants to me write positive things about guns. No chance!
Q. Have you published any other novellas/short stories besides “The Tinder Box” and “English Autumn-American Fall”?
— Gene, in the US
A. Dear Gene:
As of 2015, I have written three novellas: The Cellar; Chickenfeed; and The Tinder Box. I wrote Chickenfeed as part of World Book Day in 2006 and was thrilled when I won the Quick Reads Learners’ Favourite’ Award. The Tinder Box was commissioned for the Dutch ‘Bookweek’. During that week, one author’s novella is given away with every purchase of books throughout Holland. It’s an honour to be asked to do it and very valuable in terms of onward sales of the author’s other books.
“English Autumn – American Fall” is the only crime short story I’ve written and was commissioned by Mike Ripley and Maxim Jakobowski, two good friends of mine, for a “First Blood” anthology in England.
I had many romantic novellas and short stories published when I was in my twenties, but all under pseudonyms that I refuse to reveal! This is not because I’m ashamed of them, but because I don’t want publishers to cheat my readers by using my crime-writing ‘name’ to publish a genre they may not like or feel comfortable with.
Q. Firstly, thank you so much for your superb books. They are not only great reads but, especially recently, they have been incredibly intelligent studies of race, politics and the media. I notice that this element of your books has been much more prevalent from The Shape of Snakes onwards (although it has always been there) and wonder if it was a conscious decision on your part to become more political. Did editors, publishers etc. encourage you to take the political elements out of your early books or have events in your life caused you to want to write about these issues?
— Neil, in the UK
A. Dear Neil:
Thank you. It’s grand to meet a reader who knows my books as well as you obviously do! I think the novels appear to have become more politically overt because I decided to refer to real cases/events from The Shape of Snakes onwards. It was a conscious decision to shift the emphasis towards stronger realism, and I’m delighted that your letter suggests it works. However, as you say, the themes of prejudice, social alienation, dysfunction, miscarriage of justice, abuse etc are as clear in the earlier ones as they are in the later. One thing I can certainly reassure you about is that the only way publishers censor political references in books is not to publish them at all!
Q. Would you ever get political in your novels?
— Robert, in the UK
A. Dear Robert:
All my books are political or sociological, although it’s less obvious in the early ones. Would I like to write a political thriller? Oh, yes! But it would be about futuristic anarchy and the overthrow of complacent, established governments who think they’re practising democracy in a world where everyone has access to email or a telephone – and can express their preferences. But are my readers ready for that!?
Place names in the books
Q. I live in the general area (near Southampton) where you set all your plots and visit Dorset and the Purbecks a lot walking the cliff tops regularly, so have no problem identifying most of your ‘changed’ place names.
So, my question is: Why, in The Breaker, have you not changed any place names at all (unless I missed one) whereas every other book has them changed slightly? It was strange walking from Chapmans Pool to Durleston Head one day, and realising the exact cliff where the horse / dog bite incident must have inspired you.
Also, was Acid Row based on Paulsgrove / Leigh Park – or really somewhere around Bournemouth?
— Andy, in the UK
A. Dear Andy:
I can’t remember changing names in any of the books, although I certainly create imaginary places within real settings. For example, Shenstead valley in Fox Evil, which cuts through the Ridgeway somewhere between Dorchester and Wareham in Dorset. Clearly this valley couldn’t exist without a major river running through it, since the Ridgeway is a prehistoric fold of land, but the imaginary idea makes a colourful backdrop to the story.
Acid Row is another imaginary setting, somewhere north of Southampton in Hampshire. Certainly Paulsgrove and Leigh Park gave me ideas in the creation of Bassindale estate, but so did estates in Oxford, Bristol and London (principally Broadwater Farm). Fortunately, I don’t believe planners have ever been so foolish as to build such an easily barricaded area, but riots have certainly happened in many such estates across Britain.