Ignorance About The Current State Of Crime Fiction Is Rampant

Ignorance About The Current State Of Crime Fiction Is Rampant

The old-school pulp writers are all dead, but their creations’ shadows loom over the crime fiction genre. That’s the only conclusion I can draw after reading articles like Jacqueline Sheehan’s hilariously misinformed piece in “The Writer.”

Sheehan insists that the crime/thriller genre is male dominated, overstuffed with “the old tropes of hookers, cheating wives, or objects of sexual desire for the male protagonist.” In addition, she writes, “some female characters seem to be so enthralled with the male protagonist that they flip up their skirts after the first hello.”

Wow, I didn’t know Mickey Spillane was still churning out books from beyond the grave! And if some part of his consciousness is swimming through the ether, I bet he really enjoys being positioned as a facile straw-man!

Sheehan insists that the crime/thriller genre is male dominated, overstuffed with “the old tropes of hookers, cheating wives, or objects of sexual desire for the male protagonist.”

Fortunately, Sheehan has found the counterbalance in an unbearably chauvinistic genre, two guiding lights who are leading the way forward when it comes to creating compelling, realistic women characters in an otherwise male-swamped genre landscape. Get your applause ready, everyone, because here they are:

“First is Lee Child, the world-famous author of the Jack Reacher series, and next, Paul Doiron, the award-winning author of the Mike Bowditch series.”

[Pause for crickets.]

Now don’t get me wrong: I love Lee Child’s bestselling novels. If you’re looking for a story about a borderline-invulnerable vigilante beefy enough to give even the largest terrorist an emergency colonoscopy with a broken-off car muffler, you can’t do better than the Reacher novels. And yes, amidst all the usual Reacher-related bone-crunching, he usually gives his women characters some motivation and nuance.

I like Paul Doiron, too, although—full disclosure—I’m not as familiar with his work as with the Reacher novels. I don’t recall anything problematic in “Stay Hidden,” in any case.

But it’s stunningly clear that Sheehan doesn’t read many crime thrillers, otherwise she’d be well aware of the dozens of authors—popular and indie, of all genders—who are crafting “female characters who ring true as human beings” (her words).  In fact, I’m confused about why she chose to focus on two male authors as the conduits to complex women characters when she could have devoted that space to Tana French, Kellye Garrett, Laura Lippmann, Val McDermid, Sophie Hannah, Monica Hesse, SJ Rozan, Jennifer Hillier, Lyndsay Faye, or a couple dozen other crime/thriller novelists who are making very serious inroads in the genre.

Or if we absolutely must have a penis in the mix, why not focus on Gabino Iglesias, Rob Hart, Stephen King (if we’re focusing on his noir work), Don Winslow, Walter Mosley, or any of the other authors pushing the genre and providing nuanced characters?

…it’s stunningly clear that Sheehan doesn’t read many crime thrillers, otherwise she’d be well aware of the dozens of authors—popular and indie, of all genders—who are crafting “female characters who ring true as human beings” (her words).

And that’s before we shift our gaze to all the agents, editors, and publishing-house marketers who have zero appetite for the sort of books that Sheehan is describing (I certainly don’t know any who want to publish books like that, and I know a fair number). By using a decades-old image of crime fiction as an easy straw-man, she does a great disservice to what the genre has become.

And she’s not the only one making this kind of mistake these days. Ian McEwan, who is a consummate stylist, was recently interviewed in The Guardian about his new science-fiction novel (“Machines Like Me”), and decided to use that opportunity to take a steaming dump on… the science fiction genre.

“There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you,” he told the interviewer. “If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.”

Quick, someone get McEwan a set of Philip K. Dick’s books; it’s not like science fiction hasn’t been covering that sort of territory for decades. It’s fine for people to have opinions on genre; it’d just be nice if they did some extensive reading before they did so.

  1. Brother, I feel your pain. I recently came across a similar puff piece where someone was lauding a brand new addition to the genre: an actual, credible gay private eye!

    Like, uh, hello? Ever heard of Jospeh Hansen?

    People who write about a genre should, like, you know, read it?

  2. This might have been an interesting critique of Ms. Sheehan’s piece if Mr. Kolakowski had taken the time to respond to what she actually wrote. From the outset of her piece, Sheehan tells us that she is criticizing male crime writers: “In the world of male-authored thrillers, there are female characters who don’t hold my attention for long because, for starters, they often don’t rise above the old tropes of hookers, cheating wives, or objects of sexual desire for the male protagonist.” Sheehan then cites Lee Child and Paul Doiron as exceptions.

    One can disagree with Sheehan’s take on Child’s and Doiron’s portrayals of women, or argue that the two are not representative of the body of work coming from male crime writers today. But Kolakowski doesn’t do that. Instead, he criticizes her for not writing the article he thinks she should have written: “I’m confused about why she chose to focus on two male authors as the conduits to complex women characters when she could have devoted that space to Tana French, Kellye Garrett, Laura Lippmann, Val McDermid, Sophie Hannah, Monica Hesse, SJ Rozan, Jennifer Hillier, Lyndsay Faye, or a couple dozen other crime/thriller novelists who are making very serious inroads in the genre.” Because, as she told us in the first paragraph, her piece wasn’t about the state of female-authored crime and thriller writing.

    Having deciding to erect a straw man of his own, Kolakowski accuses Sheehan doing the same thing. His piece might have been more effective if he had analyzed the work of male crime/thriller writers whose writing contradicts Sheehan’s argument. Instead, he tosses off a few names and leaves it at that: “[I]f we absolutely must have a penis in the mix, why not focus on Gabino Iglesias, Rob Hart, Stephen King … , Don Winslow, Walter Mosley, or any of the other authors pushing the genre and providing nuanced characters?” That sounds like an interesting article. I wish Kolakowski had written it.

    1. Hi ‘Adam Lynn,’

      With all due respect, I think you’re missing the point of *my* article. Yes, I devoted a paragraph to asking why she didn’t focus on women writers — roughly the same amount of space devoted to the “few names” of male authors who you think would constitute “an interesting article.”

      But the main thrust of my argument, again, is that Sheehan misread the crime-fiction genre entirely. In her mind, it’s a crude, sexist space filled with Mike Hammer ripoffs, when the genre has evolved well past that. I’m indeed arguing, to lightly paraphrase your words, that her take isn’t “representative of the body of work coming from crime writers today” (male *or* female — see what I did there?). You acknowledge that when you suggest I should have spent more time analyzing writers who contradict her argument.

      Well, I mean, where do I start on that front? Maybe we could cover Kem Nunn’s nuanced losers and degenerates, stalking their beach; maybe we could touch on Jordan Harper’s “She Rides Shotgun,” with its blood-splattered lessons on modern parenting and masculinity; maybe we can skip over to Rob Hart’s Ash McKenna series, which is as hard a refutation of Sheehan’s aspersions on the genre as I can think of.

      In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’ve come to believe that Sheehan owes writers working in this genre an apology. Her straw man is (not to put too fine a point on it) an insult to them.

      Thanks for writing in,

      N.

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