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Clare Whitfield on Her Favourite Empowering Women in Crime Fiction

Posted on 25th May 2021 by Mark Skinner

A taut, engrossing period crime novel centred on a woman who grows to suspect that her husband could be Jack the Ripper, Clare Whitfield's People of Abandoned Character features a strong female protagonist at its core. In this exclusive piece, Clare discusses other great female characters in crime fiction, from Stieg Larsson to Gillian Flynn.   

As a crime fiction addict, I’ve been asked if I wouldn’t occasionally prefer a bit of fantasy or romance as a means of inspiration but I’m afraid neither are for me. Capes get snagged on door handles. I’ve been bitten by a spider and never developed superpowers, and despite trying, I’ve never managed to fire laser beams out of my eyes. Give me the grit and determination of a simple human being stuck in a desperate situation any day. Show me the hopeless reality of a mere mortal and how she works her way to freedom with only her wits and determination. This is what I find inspiring and here are a few heroines did just that. 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Originally called Män som hatar kvinnor or Men Who Hate Women, in Swedish, Stieg Larsson’s 2005 posthumously published novel is an intense read. It has a host of sinister characters set against a stark Scandinavian landscape and an undercurrent of dark economic forces - it’s not for the faint hearted. 

The intriguing anti-social heroine Lisbeth Salander is the opposite of every heroine I’ve ever encountered or was at the time. Lisbeth is a well-paid surveillance agent and computer hacker, and she isn’t confined by the tyranny of normal cultural pressures - she doesn’t care if people find her attractive or likeable and she certainly isn’t worrying about her biological clock. She is her own person, whether that’s healthy or not, its unapologetic.

Personally, I prefer the original title, it takes away the fetishization of the female form and focuses on the undercurrents that run throughout the novel. It’s as much a political protest as a crime thriller and has a lot to say about the economic forces that shape European capitalist society and prevailing attitudes towards women.

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Stieg Larsson’s dark, propulsive crime thriller of revenge and retribution revolutionised the genre, with its plot pyrotechnics and utterly compelling central character spawning countless imitators.
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The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris 

What I particularly love about crime novels is the problem-solving aspect and that a woman must figure her way out of the seemingly impossible. In this novel, our lead must manage upwards, sideways, downwards and all around her using her intelligence, training, and skills. FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling learns and makes mistakes along the way. The Silence of the Lambs was the sequel to Red Dragon which I had already enjoyed so I was bowled over when this had a young female protagonist. 

Clarice receives flippant disregard, from being treated in a fluffy condescending manner by fellow law enforcement to the open hostility of warden, Dr Chiltern, after she rebuffs his inappropriate advances. This slight however, gives her something in common with cannibalistic serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who despises the warden of the secure facility where he is held. 

Clarice manoeuvres her way through an oppressive patriarchy because she’s focused on what she wants – professional advancement. She fosters the weird and unorthodox connection she has with Dr Lecter and gives him access to elements of her own psyche in exchange for information that may give her the professional edge in the investigation to hunt a serial killer. Clarice wants progression and understands this dark transaction could be the way to get it.

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Written with a visceral elegance that sets Harris apart from his crime writing contemporaries, The Silence of the Lambs is the novel that made the devilishly charismatic psychopath Hannibal Lecter infamous and spawned a multi-Oscar winning film adaptation.
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My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

There should always be room for humour, even (as the name clearly suggests) if your sister is a serial murderer. It’s amazing what you can get away with if you can conjure the right mix of the wryly funny and macabre. 

Set in Nigeria, nurse Korede is resentful at always having to come second fiddle to her beautiful and selfish sister, Ayoola. Her duties have evolved to include helping her out when she kills another boyfriend in supposed self-defence. Koreda has a great inner voice, which she mostly reveals to her comatose patient who seems to be the type of person she most feels comfortable with, but she does have a crush on a doctor at the hospital where she works. Things take a complicated turn when Ayoola also notices the doctor. It’s a fun and quirky, fast paced novel where the female leads take centre stage, and aside from them having some serious character flaws - which make only make them more intriguing to someone like me, there’s some interesting social commentary and it all makes for an entertaining and thoroughly modern read.

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Not just an inventive take on the serial-murder thriller, Braithwaite's blistering debut is also a tender examination of sibling relationships in an oppressively patriarchal society and a story that turns the tables on the woman-as-victim trope.
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Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn 

This book rocked my world if only for the cool girl section and the raw punch in the face honesty of a bitter, angry woman who has woken up to how girls contort themselves into the image of what men find attractive. 

Amy Dunne has starved, sculpted and waxed herself into the perfect wife based on a million different expectations her husband, Nick Dunne, might have. She aims to please, she’s well trained, she beautiful, she’s clever, she’s funny. Best of all, she comes with a trust fund courtesy of her parents who write children’s books – their most famous character, The Amazing Amy, based on their own daughter. 

Nick Dunne is lazy, apathetic, selfish and self-absorbed. When their marriage begins to fail for various reasons, she begins to live up to her namesake, but not in the people pleasing fashion this time. When she finds out Nick is having an affair with a much younger student, she turns all that effort, skill and organisation at being what everyone else wants her to be and turns it into pure pathological vengeance, executed with military precision to Machiavellian effect. 

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Artfully employing misdirection, unreliable narrators and jaw-dropping twists, Flynn’s third novel is a bravura white-knuckle ride into the heart of millennial darkness.
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