Who Writes the Best Crime Novels: Men or Women?

unmade bed

photo: Peter Lee, creative commons license

In the current issue of The Atlantic, author Terrence Rafferty has an intriguing piece titled “Women Are Writing the Best Crime Novels” (in the “Culture” column, no less). Hmm. For real cultural insights, skim the article and read the comments.

Rafferty attributes women authors’ strength in this genre to the growing popularity of “domestic thrillers,” the kind where your enemy sleeps next to you. Gone Girl catapulted this resurgent genre to public attention. Theirs “is not a world Raymond Chandler would have recognized,” Rafferty says. His characters’ motives were more basic (sex and greed) and their methods more direct. “Take that, you punk!” bang, bang.

Rafferty thinks Chandler’s lone detective genre is almost as dead as the corpse in the dining room, though plenty of popular books are clear heirs to that tradition. The Jack Reacher series by Lee Child, the Tess Monaghan series by Laura Lippman, and the Strike/Ellacott books of J.K. Rawlings (writing as Robert Galbraith) feature investigators working outside official channels. Their investigations are a bit hard to pull off in these technology-reliant days, but they can usually find a friendly cop to snag certain kinds of information for them. Cell phone logs and whatnot.

As a person who reads a large number of books in the crime/mystery/thriller genre—reviewing 46 in the past year for CrimeFictionLover.com—I can tell you there are some really tired tropes out there—heroes with arcane martial arts skills, who know thirty-two ways to kill a person in two seconds flat, who get beat up but bounce back in record time, and who never met a woman they couldn’t bed. A few of them also have a sense of humor.

The “girl” novels discard all that. Instead, they rely on astonishing levels of manipulation and the workings of the characters’ minds, which Rafferty says often dwell on unresolved adolescent angst. A few years hence, those features will likely seem just as tiresome and overworked as the boy wonders. I laughed out loud reading this from one of the commenters on Rafferty’s article: “I think that after a certain number of introspective life years, the Self as object d’art is too debunked to stand much further scrutiny.”

Rafferty cites a bunch of female authors he admires, including Laura Lippman, Denise Mina, Tana French. Their type of storytelling, he says, doesn’t depend so strongly on heroes, making it “perhaps a better fit for these cynical times.” Less gunplay, more emotional violence. I’d add to his list Becky Masterson, Meghan Tifft, and Cecilia Ekbäck.

But here’s where his argument gets tricky. By conflating crime fiction, mystery, and thriller genres, he makes his argument a bit difficult to follow, because they have different foundational premises and conventions, and their readers have greatly different expectations. There isn’t a lot of overlap between the audiences for John Sanford and Agatha Christie.

Yet he says today’s women writers have “come a long way from the golden age, from Christie and Sayers, from the least-likely-suspect sort of mystery in which, proverbially, the butler did it” (emphasis added). In today’s psychological thrillers, authors “know better. The girl did it, and she had her reasons.”

Reviewing my own reading of some 60 books in the broad crime/mystery/thriller category over the past 18 months, I find that whether a book is interesting, well-written, genre-stretching, and good entertainment does not depend on the author’s gender. Women and men were equally likely to write a book I liked. Great books are simply great books.

4 thoughts on “Who Writes the Best Crime Novels: Men or Women?

  1. What a wonderful overview of the genre. I will keep this for a reference. I really am way behind in reading mysteries and yet I like them and am more interested in how women handle mysteries, since men have dominated the form for a long time in America, not so much in England though.

  2. On point blog about the quality of writing vs genre. Interesting tidbit is sisters in crime has a monitoring project that counts reviews in numerous journals, papers, periodicals and until recent years, the number of male authors reviewed versus females has proven to be significantly skewed. There have been some who are more even handed and the gap has closed some in the last year or so, but it still exists. Why?

    • Books by men are more likely to find agents and publishers and to be reviewed (mostly by other men). Very frustrating! Sisters in Crime has been terrific at pointing this out and, to some extent, remediating it.

Comments are closed.