Today, my publisher revealed the gorgeously designed cover for my upcoming thriller, Local Whispers. It gave me the opportunity to think about why I wrote the book. In fact, why I wrote both this one and its predecessor, Flowers for the Dead.
It made me realise:
I write thrillers so that I can write on violence against women.
The female victim is a staple of crime and suspense writing. Edgar Allan Poe, a writer I much admire (I challenge anyone to show me a more intense poem than “The Tell-Tale Heart”), famously wrote in an essay for the American 19th century Graham’s Magazine: “The death […] of a beautiful woman” is “unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world”.
Not so much for the woman concerned, of course.
Women Die Beautifully
In crime and suspense fiction, in particularly on television and in film, women die in staggering numbers; they are also young, slim, flawless, and often presented in aesthetically elevated shots surrounded by leaves, flowers, or luxurious architecture. Women have so consistently been given poetic deaths after Poe’s liking that critics and authors have begun fighting back: the writer Bridget Lawless founded the Staunch Book Prize after judging the British Television Awards (BAFTAS) in 2018, which is awarded only to those books where no woman is “is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”. Critic Amy Beddows has recently enquired into the possibilities of feminist True Crime narratives in Transforming Society.
I agree with authors such as Bridget Lawless and critics such as Amy Beddows: What we need are fewer depictions of poetic deaths, and dead women in general, period, in (true) crime fiction. We as women have to stop feeling like victims, like the defeated, like the oppressed, if we are to bring emancipation and feminism forward and create societieswere all are equal and women no longer the target of misogyny.
And still I wrote two thrillers in which women are the victims: Both in Flowers for the Dead and Local Whispers, younger and older women are subjected to heinous crimes: rape, murder, stalking.
Why did I do so?
Women who stand up for themselves
The answer, once I began thinking about it, came so easily as to be almost an afterthought: my novels are not about women as victims. They are about women who take action. Women who grow into themselves, who fight back, wo stand up for what is rightfully theirs.
Linn, the protagonist of Flowers for the Dead, was eighteen when she was raped. Now in her thirties, she separates from her husband and returns to her hometown to reckon with the past. In the process, she will regain old friendships, find new allies, and try to bring the perpetrators to justice, even without the support of the police and the courts.
In Local Whispers, Kate is a forty-year-old GP in the rural Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland (a beautiful landscape that is inhabited by the friendliest people that you can imagine in real life!). After she makes a stand for abortion rights, she is villified and hunted by her community. When a young woman is found dead, Kate is the one who is blamed – and suddenly finds herself in mortal danger from the very people who were supposed to protect her.
How can women fight back against male violence?
In both novels, I wanted to explore the way that we as women can fight back against the violence men commit against us: Linn and Kate mobilise their friends and families, their social networks, allied men. They refuse to be silenced, they stand up for themselves, they are determined and know what they want.
I also wanted to write about how women are most efficiently intimidated today, both by society and the perpetrators: refusing them institutional support; belittling and ignoring their problems; taking away their social networks.
I am sorry that neither Local Whispers nor Flowers for the Dead will qualify for the Staunch Book Award, a very valuable literary prize that I whole-heartedly support.
Remembering those who have been taken from us
But I am not sorry to have written them the way I wrote them: to show how women respond to violent attacks with courage, dignity, and strength. To show women who stand up for themselves. To show women who refuse to stay at home at night, who refuse to imprison themselves in their homes because the police, politicians, and the institutions of the state can think of no better way to protect them than to deny them their freedom.
These books are my contribution in the struggle to end male violence against women. And when I look at the cover that my publisher revealed today, I am not thinking of Edgar Allan Poe or death, no matter how poetic.
I am thinking of Sarah Everard. I am thinking of the 272 other women in the United Kingdom who were just like her. I am thinking of the many women of colour who are even less likely to be taken seriously.
I am thinking of how we have to make the world a better place for women.
Flowers for the Dead is out with One More Chapter.