what’s the matter with Men of Mystery? or why we still need Sisters in Crime

November 4, 2014

A controversy has erupted over a decision a long-running mystery fan convention, Bouchercon, has made to host another  long-running mystery fan event, Men of Mystery. Though Bouchercon often sponsors panels that focus on gender or ethnicity, setting aside a two-hour block of time to focus on men not because they write about men but simply because they are men pushed some buttons. Both the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime have made official statements. (Edited to add: the Sisters in Crime site now includes the SinC statement and a response from the chair of Bouchercon 2014.) Now we’re hearing the inevitable backlash. I thought I’d put together some of my personal thoughts. I currently coordinate the monitoring project for Sisters in Crime, and that makes me a board member of the organization, but I am not speaking for the organization or as a board member, just as a person who finds these questions interesting and important. For some reason, it came out in the form of dialogue.

What do you have against men?

Nothing. I know many of the writers featured at this event. I like them, and I like the books they write. That’s not the issue.

Then what is the issue?

Male privilege.

Privilege? What in the name of political correctness are you talking about?

Chances are you have it but can’t see it. A weird property of privilege it’s often invisible – unless you don’t have it. There’s a good explanation of how this works at Feminism 101. I also recommend  A Male Privilege Checklist, Peggy McIntosh’s classic White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack and, while I’m at it, Square 8’s Checklist of Neurotypical Privilege. The short version is that it’s a set of advantages individuals have because they are in a group on which society confers certain benefits. For people in that group, these benefits seem to be the norm, so it’s puzzling or upsetting when someone points out they are not equally available to everyone. When I grew up in Wisconsin I was convinced everybody who came from another state had an accent, but I didn’t because the way I said things was normal. I didn’t know I had an accent until I moved to a southern state and suddenly I was the one who talked funny.

You do talk funny.

Thank you. I moved to Minnesota and now talk even funnier.

Look, fine, but I worked hard to get where I am.

I know. I’m not saying you had it easy. I am saying that men as a class have benefits that women don’t have. Whites as a class have benefits people of color don’t have. And so forth. We live in a society that would prefer to keep things simple by saying what we get is what we deserve: if we do well, it’s because we worked hard and are good at our work. If we fail, we must have done something wrong or didn’t work hard enough. That’s not the whole story. One things writers do is see the world through other people’s eyes, and that’s why reading fiction promotes empathy. We can take into account all the strands that go into how someone got from Chapter One to The End. We get how complicated it is.

Okay, fine. But if we can’t have panels for men of mystery, then how can you justify having panels for women writers?  Or Latino writers or . . .

Or how male writers represent masculinity in crime fiction? I would totally go to that panel, especially if George Pelecanos was on it. His writing seems to be all about how young disenfranchised men are seeking their male identity in a culture where so much of what defines masculinity is either off-limits for socio-economic-reasons or criminalized for a large part of our male population. Where is that panel? I want to go to that panel!

Oh, wait. We were talking about Men of Mystery. This isn’t a panel about men in crime fiction. It’s a well-intentioned celebration of writers that just happens to exclude half of the population simply because they aren’t men. I’m sure there was no malice intended. The plan wasn’t “let’s put women in their place – in the audience or at the margins.” But that’s why it’s so important to recognize and understand privilege. If you don’t, it will be invisible to you and you will  normalize discrimination without even noticing.

I understand that the plan has been changed, that Men of Mystery has been shortened to an hour-long session to be followed by Women of Mystery. I appreciate that the statements of concern sent by the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime were received and that people are scrambling to fix it. I’m just not sure at this point what message was received other than that Some People Are Upset and there are bound to be hurt feelings all around.

Bouchercon is a volunteer-led event that takes a lot of work and every year fields complaints from every quarter and it’s horrible when you work so hard on something for love and have so much unanticipated drama erupt. For everyone who has put untold hours into making this event that has so many moving parts happen, thank you. And I’m sorry that something you are doing for love has become so controversial. The patch is going to be awkward and while I hope it will afford an opportunity for productive conversation I’m sure it might also produce a certain polarization. For those who anticipate engaging in difficult discussions, may I also recommend Derailing for Dummies? It does a great job of outlining a variety of ways that a conversation can go wrong. Snark included at no extra charge.

Crime fiction is a genre we love in part because it engages difficult issues of right and wrong, of the choices we make and their consequences, of problems in society and how they affect people’s lives. But it also gives us a sense that we can be brave enough to approach these issues for a closer look. In the end, these stories about broken things can make us whole by giving us greater empathy, some kind of narrative coherence to the anxieties we feel, and a sense that justice might sometimes prevail. Okay, in the case of noir justice might not prevail, but it’s going to be a beautiful ride. And that’s resolution enough.

What I hope to see come of this issue is not just hurt feelings but a greater understanding of why privilege matters even when – especially when – it’s invisible.

From time to time I hear people ask why we still need an organization like Sisters in crime. This is why. We have work to do.


Edited to add – at Femmes Fatales Dana Cameron has written a recap and an update on the situtation. It looks as if people are coming together to make something very postiive happen at Bouchercon. It’s a smart analysis and a very encouraging report on how people are coming together to address it. As she writes in “This is How Things Change”:

Good people make mistakes without intending to. Good people can respond to those mistakes while still valuing the effort that went into the process. Working together, they can address concerns and find solutions. That’s what’s happening now.

We Can Do It

poster by J. Howard Miller, 1943, courtesy of Wikimedia


Sisters in Crime September Sinc-Up

August 29, 2014

Sisters in Crime has a blog challenge for the month of September. The idea is to respond to any (or all) of the following questions in a blog post:

  • Which authors have inspired you?
  • Which male authors write great women characters? Which female authors write great male characters?
  • If someone said “Nothing against women writers, but all of my favorite crime fiction authors happen to be men,” how would you respond?
  • What’s the best part of the writing process for you? What’s the most challenging?
  • Do you listen to music while writing? What’s on your playlist?
  • What books are on your nightstand right now?
  • If you were to mentor a new writer, what would you tell her about the writing business?

Then, tag another author whose work you think readers might enjoy and tweet your post, using the hashtag #SinC-up and including @SINCnational (or if you’re not on Twitter, you can email a link to webmaven@sistersincrime.org, who will publicize it for you). You don’t have to be a member of Sisters in Crime to participate.

I’m going to give this thing a whirl a little early to help kick things off with three of the questions and one tagged author.

If someone said “Nothing against women writers, but all of my favorite crime fiction authors happen to be men,” how would you respond?

So, librarians do this thing they call “readers’ advisory.” I’m not very good at it, because I work at an academic library where the students don’t want my advice about anything they might do for fun. Still, it’s an area of the profession that has really blossomed in the past decade, and it would come in handy when formulating a response other than muttered profanities and insults. That would be not only diplomatic but only fair, considering how overwhelmingly male my own list of favorite authors was when began to read mysteries. There are all kinds of complex reasons for this. Let me just say I’m more aware of the imbalance now than I was then and am trying to make a point of discovering and reading women’s crime fiction, because there are a lot of terrific women writers out there.

The first task is to find out more about the reader’s tastes. For example, if I met myself from fifteen years ago, my old self would say “I like Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Tony Hillerman, and James Lee Burke.” I’d say “Me too! Hey, have you tried Denise Mina? She has a great, gritty sense of time and place like Lehane. Or how about Margie Orford, who tackles the ‘grammar of violence’ in post-apartheid Cape Town, South Africa, kind of like what Pelecanos has been doing in his portrayal of our capital city M. J. McGrath has the same fine eye for landscape and an inside view of native cultures as Hillerman, and if you love JLB’s lush prose, you don’t want to miss Tana French, though I’d start first with Faithful Place; I think you’ll like the protagonist.”

Which male authors write great women characters? Which female authors write great male characters?

I’ll mention one of each. Tim Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series has wonderful characters all around, but he’s particularly great at getting inside the head of the women in Poke’s family. The Queen of Patpong is an amazing act of imagination, tracing the life of a woman from northern Thailand who (like so many women) goes to Bangkok to become part of the sex trade. The dignity and empathy with which he treats the subject is amazing. Every scene that Poke’s adopted daughter, Miaow, is in is stolen by her. Again, it’s not just that he can imagine the world from a girl’s perspective, but also from the viewpoint of a girl whose early years were spent on the streets of Bangkok.

Kate Atkinson is another stunningly good writer and I find her Jackson Brodie completely real and convincing (and, yes, male). As with Hallinan, every character she writes about is drawn in complex, human, genuine terms. Brodie is not a collection of male traits; he’s himself, one of a cast of three-dimensional characters defined by a lot of things, not just gender roles, though of course the way they respond to gender roles further reveals who they are. I suspect that is the reason these authors can imagine their way into the life of someone very different from them. They don’t resort to cliches or types.

Okay, one more comment: a writer who delibrately used gender cliches and types to good effect is Steig Larsson. He reversed gender cliches and fooled around with popular culture motifs in a way that made them fresh enough to startle readers and playful enough to be engaging. Otherwise, it might have been a little tricky to get the masses to pick up a book that opens chapters with crime statistics and is titled (in the original Swedish) Men Who Hate Women. But everyone loves the Girl.

If you were to mentor a new writer, what would you tell her about the writing business?

The first thing I would say is I would be a terrible mentor; find yourself a good one and join Sisters in Crime because it offers a lot to writers who want to learn about the business and the dues are affordable (only $40!) Second, being an anarchist pinko, I would ask her what she wants from writing. So much advice out there has to do with self-promotion and validation through the soul-crushing metrics of money and attention. They’re soul-crushing because they induce a yearning that is inevitably disappointing. That’s how capitalism works! (Hey, I warned you about my leanings.)

I would encourage her to figure out what she loves about writing and hold onto that intrinsic motivation because the extrinsic kind is pretty brutal. Learn the basics of the business without paying too much attention to evangelists, either those who think anything that doesn’t come from one of the big five publishing corporations can’t be worthwhile or those who think self-publishing is the only road to liberty and wealth and anyone who chooses another path is a deluded serf. (So. Much. Macho. Posturing. Don’t get me started.) You have options, I would tell her; you don’t have to take sides. Learn the basics, find a few good sources of information to keep up with what’s going on in this strange business, and then focus on writing as well as you can. There is no platonic ideal of “writer” that you need to become. You just need to figure out who you are as a writer – and write your heart out.

lisa brackmannPart of this project is to tag a writer worth reading. I’m choosing Lisa Brackmann, author of two bang-up books set in China – Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat (which she describes as “a lighthearted romp through environmental apocalypse”) – and a tense woman-out-of-her-element thriller set in Mexico, Getaway. They’re good, compulsive reading and you’ll never see the world quite the same way again. In fact, every time I think about replacing some worn-out piece of computer hardware I picture a scene in Hour of the Rat. She blogs in various places including her own blog, The Paper Tiger.

#SinC25 Round-Up

March 4, 2012

Here are the names of women writers highlighted by bloggers in the Sisters in Crime 25th Anniversary Book Bloggers’ Challenge. (By the way, it’s not too late to join, The deadline is “whenever.”) Linked names go to blog posts; the names in bulleted lists are writers who are in some way similar. Thanks to all those who have participated – we’ve come up with a long and varied list!

Harriet Stratemeyer Adams (Carolyn Keene)

Catherine Aird

Margery Allingham

  • Dorothy Sayers
  • Ngaio Marsh
  • Carol O’Connell

Karin Alvtegen

Kate Atkinson

  • Frances Fyfield
  • Jennifer McMahon
  • Cornelia Read

Noreen Ayers

Belinda Bauer

Emilia Pardo Bazán

M. C. Beaton (pseudonym of Marion Chesney) (more than once) (and yet again)

Dorothy Bowers

Zenith Jones Brown (aka David Frome and Leslie Ford)

Edna Buchanan

Karen Campbell

  • Denise Mina
  • Helene Tursten
  • Aline Templeton

Mercedes Castro

Sarah Caudwell

Agatha Christie

Anne Cleeves (more than once)

Liza Cody

Patricia Cornwell

Barbara D’Amato

Marele Day

Unity Dow

Sarah Dunant

Janet Evanovich

Cristina Fallarás

Karin Fossum (more than once) (and yet again)

  • Ruth Rendell
  • Karin Alvtegen
  • Dorothy B. Hughs

Ariana Franklin

Tana French

  • Denise Mina
  • Margaret Maron
  • Jennifer McMahon

Inger Frimansson

  • Karin Alvtegen
  • Camilla Ceder
  • Diane Janes

Tess Gerritsen

Dorothy Gilman (more than once)

Alicia Giménez Bartlett

Sue Grafton

Elly Griffiths

Denise Hamilton

  • Mari Jungstedt
  • Elaine Viets
  • Liza Marklund

Petra Hammesfahr

Erin Hart

Joan Hess

Georgette Heyer

Joanna Hines

  • Barbara Vine
  • Diane Janes
  • Morag Joss

Loes den Hollander

Anne Holt

  • Yrsa Sigurdardottir
  • Minette Walters
  • Liza Cody

Katherine Howell (more than once)

Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen

Miranda James

Lene Kaaberol and Agnete Friis

  • Sara Paretsky
  • Liza Marklund
  • Abigail Padgett

Margot Kinberg

  • Carol Schmurak
  • Elly Griffiths
  • Sisal Jo-Gazan

Natsuo Kirino

Harley Jane Kozak

Asa Larsson (more than once) (and yet again)

  • Karin Alvtegen
  • Karin Fossum
  • Laura Lippman
  • Stef Penney
  • Camilla Ceder
  • Kersten Ekman

Constance and Gwenyth Little

C. J. Lyons

Sharyn McCrumb

M. J. McGrath

  • Dana Stabenow
  • Asa Larsson
  • R. J. Harlick

Charlotte MacLeod

Lucy Beatrice Malleson (aka Anthony Gilbert and other pseudonyms)

Miyuke Miyabe

Finola Moorhead

Marcia Muller

Reggie Nadelson

  • Denise Mina
  • Alex Carr / Jennie Siler
  • Asa Larsson

Saskia Noort

Carol O’Connell

Lourdes Ortiz

Maria-Antònia Oliver

Sara Paretsky

Marion Pauw

Louise Penny

Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) (more than once)

Claudia Pineiro

  • Teresa Solano
  • Donna Moore
  • Leigh Redhead

Evelyn Piper (pseudonym of Mary Modell)

Dorothy Porter

Suzanne Proulx

Kathy Reichs

Rosa Ribas

Imogen Robertson

Leah Ruth Robinson

Mercé Rodoreda

Kate Ross

Rebecca Rothenberg

Catherine Sampson

Marta Sanz

Sandra Scoppettone

Diane Setterfield

Dell Shannon (pseudonym of Elizabeth Linington)

Barbara Burnett Smith

Teresa Solana

Kelli Stanley

Vanda Symon

Josephine Tey

Victoria Thompson

Helene Tursten

  • Mary Logue
  • Yrsa Sigurdardottir
  • Leena Lehtolainen

Simone van der Vlugt

  • Jessica Mann
  • Esther Verhoef
  • Yaba Badoe

Lola Van Guardia

Fred Vargas

Esther Verhoef

Suzanne Vermeer

Laura Wilson

  • Aly Monroe
  • Jacqueline Winspear
  • Andrea Maria Schenkel

SinC25, # 10 – Helene Tursten

January 15, 2012

My final author for the Sisters in Crime 25th Anniversary Challenge represents for me a kind of women’s writing that I enjoy and sometimes don’t appreciate enough. These are series of books about working women who balance their home life with a difficult and demanding job, who are quietly professional though sometimes have to do a little more than their male colleagues – and bite their tongues at times, who bring compassion with them when they go to a crime scene, and who carry on case after case. They tend to operate in a fictional world peopled with characters and settings drawn on a human scale, rather than running a marathon through high-concept plots with lots of drama and gore. They don’t have a lot of angst because they have work to do and families to go home to. They are a lot like us, only more interesting.

I am so pleased that Soho Press is releasing another book in Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss series set in Göteborg. The series began in 1998 with Detective Inspector Huss (published in English five years later). Translations of two more books in the series – The Torso and The Glass Devil – were published in 2006 and 2007. Then nothing . . . until 2012. Night Rounds, the second book in the series, will come out in English this March.  As anyone who enjoys reading translated series knows, we often have to be detectives and assemble characters’ lives from what we can gather after the fact, putting together the series arc like a puzzle. Can I hope that the next five books in the series might someday be translated?

Night Rounds draws on Tursten’s life experience as a nurse and is set in a private hospital where a power failure leads to the death of an elderly patient in intensive care. The ICU nurse has vanished and is later found murdered, sprawled over the failed backup generator. One of the staff reports that she saw a figure on the grounds just after the lights went out: a woman dressed in an old-fashioned cape and cap. She is certain it is Nurse Tekla, who hanged herself in the hospital attic in 1947. All of the staff know the story, and many believe they have seen glimpses of the ghost before.

As always, Irene investigates systematically, teasing out the relationships of the hospital employees and tracking clues into the past. Her workmates operate as a team, with occasional sparks. A young female detective is being harassed by a colleague who sends anonymous pornography; when he’s caught, he’s merely transferred and Irene finds herself trying to mentor the young woman, who isn’t inclined to bide her time or bite her tongue. There is a sympathetic portrait of mentally ill homeless woman who lives on the grounds of the hospital; social issues – racism, family dysfunction, the sex industry – are present in all of Tursten’s books, though never didactically.

And as usual Irene’s family plays a secondary role in the story, as one of the detective’s twin daughters gets involved in the animal rights movement and finds herself in over her head with activists who are willing to use violence to make their point. One of the real pleasures of this series is the interludes of ordinary family life. Irene is happily married (to an even-tempered man who is an excellent chef! perhaps that’s a bit of wish fulfillment) and has two children who get up to the usual drama that adolescents go through. There’s a nice balance in the books of police work and everyday life, without too much domestic detail; just enough to give readers a realistic and engaging portrait of a capable detective who has a life outside the job.It’s refreshing to encounter a detective who doesn’t flinch from the grim realities of police work but still manages to be present for her children and keep a firm hand on her own emotional tiller. In many ways, this portrait of a woman police officer is a feminist one, demonstrating the way a woman can be herself in a traditionally masculine culture.

The Swedish television series starring Angela Kovacs , made by the ubiquitous Yellow Bird Studios, is quite good, though its dramatization of The Torso seemed to me far more graphically gruesome than the book. My favorite aspect of that novel is the contrast drawn between Danish and Swedish cultures, particularly in terms of attitudes toward the sex industry. I’m not sure what Danes think of it, but it shed a lot of light on Swedish attitudes for this American reader.

Now for the part that has turned out to be much harder than I expected – three women writers who are in some way similar:

  • Mary Logue, whose Claire Watkins seems like a remarkably sane and balanced police officer in rural Wisconsin and who always has time for her daughter
  • Yrsa Sigurdardottir, who does a nice job of weaving in her heroine’s family life with a light touch
  • Leena Lehtolainen, who I can’t say much about because her series has not been translated into English – but I wish someone would! From what I’ve heard from Paula Arvas, a Finnish scholar who was a speaker at last spring’s Stieg Larsson symposium at UCLA, her work is not considered as “important” as harder-edged books by men mainly because she doesn’t write about society’s underbelly and focuses instead on more ordinary people. She has twice won the award for best crime fiction in Finland and has been nominated for the Glass Key award. There are apparently 11 books in the Maria Kallio series, the most recent published in 2011. But it’s not too late for someone to get cracking and translate this series, since Lehtolainen got an early start – her first novel was published when she was only 12 years old!

SinC25, #9: M. J. McGrath

December 30, 2011

I thought I would include another new-to-me woman writer as I take the Sisters in Crime 25th anniversary book bloggers’ challenge (which you are welcome to try yourself – at the easy, moderate, or expert level). When I read a review of White Heat, it sounded fascinating, combining a strong and resourceful female heroine with a harsh Arctic landscape, and very good it proved to be. It reminded me a bit of Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest, a mixed-race Australian living with an aboriginal group, in the way it approaches the complexity of contemporary indigenous people living on a land they understand better than anyone else.

In this complex mystery, Edie Kiglatuk makes her living as a guide for white hunters who want to test themselves against the harsh arctic environment. This is not a job typically held by a woman, but Edie is well attuned to the land and has a living to make. The community she lives in clings to the ice and rock of Ellesmere Island, a place so unforgiving that it was largely uninhabited until in 1953 the Canadian government decided it needed inhabitants to ensure a claim to it. (I gather the US had designs on it for strategic reasons.) They chose Inuit because they had the best chance of coping with the hostile environment. McGrath has written a non-fiction account of these settlers and the unfortunate experiment that left them stranded far from home and up against the elements, the government having forgotten their promise to return them to Hudson Bay if life proved too difficult.

In this harsh climate Edie has overcome years of alcoholism and made a tough life for herself, which includes her hopes for a nephew who is training to be a nurse. When she takes a pair of qalunaat (white men) hunting, one of them is shot. Her nephew comes to help by snowmobile, and when weather conditions allow, her aunt (who proves pigheaded independence runs among women in the family) flies in to take him to the nearest hospital. In spite of their best efforts the man dies, and everyone is eager to declare it an unfortunate hunting accident. But Edie has her doubts, and when more violence strikes even closer to home, she has to get to the bottom of it, which involves a trip to Greenland and some harrowing physical challenges.

The plot is perhaps a bit over-elaborate, with a mulit-national cast of bad guys, but the major characters are wonderfully drawn, with real sympathy and respect for native people living under difficult circumstances without romanticizing the very real challenges they face. The people and the land they live on come alive in this story. It would be a good one to read on a hot day; I read it at the start of winter, and it made me feel very cold, indeed. Once I checked a map, I realized just how far north Ellesmere Island really is.

McGrath wrote an essay about her experiences doing research for her books in the Telegraph. I’m very tempted to read her non-fiction book, The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic, but I think I will wait until it’s warmer.

As for women writers whose work is in some way similar . . .

  • Dana Stabenow, who writes about her native Alaska with a vivid sense of place.
  • Asa Larsson, who also loves arctic Sweden and makes it sound quite beautiful.
  • R. J. Harlick, whose mysteries are set in area where the inhabitants of Ellesmere Island once lived.

SinC25, #8: Anne Holt

December 20, 2011

For some odd reason I put off reading Norwegian author Anne Holt. I suspect it was because the books that were translated first into English featured an FBI-trained profiler, and I am rather allergic to FBI-trained profilers. (My favorite depiction of them was the case of two duelling and equally fatuous profilers in Jess Walter’s Over Tumbled Graves, an excellent novel that investigates our obsession with serial killers. Then there’s Malcolm Gladwell’s article about profilers in The New Yorker – as skeptical as I am. So even though every interview with the author that I came across made me think “I like how this writer thinks!” I never picked up one of her books – until I recently read Death in Oslo. And enjoyed it tremendously.

Death in Oslo, the third in a series featuring the profiler Johanne Vik, starts with an intriguing premise. A woman has just been elected president of the United States, and as the book opens we learn that she has triumphed in spite of closely-guarded personal secret. In fact the book opens with her thought: I got away with it. But of course, she hasn’t, really. Her first foreign trip is to a safe country, the home of her ancestors, Norway. But the unthinkable happens. Madame President disappears – on the 17th of May, of all days, Norway’s independence day and an occasion for raucous partying. Johanne is upset when her partner, Adam Stubo, is drafted to work on the crisis. Johanne has her reasons to avoid the FBI agent who is working on the case. She takes their small daughter with her to a secret retreat, the apartment of her mentor, wheelchair-bound Hanne Wilhelmsen (who features in a series that has mostly not been translated yet except for 1222). As Adam deals with the public side of the investigation, Johanne and Hanne come into it via a different route. And all the while, the reader knows who is behind the disappearance. We just don’t know how he pulled it off – or why.

Death in Olso is great fun. It’s a complex story with a lot of characters from all over the world, but Holt draws them so skillfully that it’s no trouble keeping them apart. She also does a nice line in puzzles and keeps us guessing, right up to the end – and even then, things aren’t tied up neatly. There is a whacking great coincidence on which much of the story hinges, but as hinges go, it’s not squeaky and moves very smoothly. I particularly enjoyed the consternation of Norwegian officials when the unthinkable happens, and the contrast between their response and that of American security agencies.  All in all, it’s terrifically entertaining and is peopled with memorable characters I would like to meet again.

Now, as for three more women writers who are in some way similar – oof, this is always hard . . .

  • Yrsa Sigurdardottir – who also creates likeable characters with interesting personal lives and also likes puzzles in her plots.
  • Minette Walters – who combines intricate plots with social and political issues.
  • Liza Cody – who creates memorable characters with a feminist edge and a lot of compassion.

It’s not too late to join the Sisters in Crime 25th Anniversary Book Bloggers Challenge at either the easy, moderate, or expert challenge (or, if you’re a triathlete like Maxine, all three). The deadline is whenever. I will eventually collate all of the posts in one gigantic listing. I know I’ve discovered some new writers thanks to others who have taken the challenge. And though she probably doesn’t know about the challenge, Anne Holt herself has made a list of her ten favorite female detectives for The Guardian.

SinC25, #7: Asa Larsson

November 26, 2011

Not long ago I finished reading Until Thy Wrath Be Past, Asa Larsson’s most recent book in the Rebecka Martinsson – Anna-Maria Mella series set in the far north of Sweden, and sighed with satisfaction. It’s an excellent book in a wonderful series, and so it makes sense for me to include Asa Larsson in my attempt at the expert level of the Sisters in Crime 25th Anniversary Challenge.

Asa Larsson is an excellent writer, and in this series she adds to her stylish writing a group of intriguing characters and a vivid setting that the author infuses with love. Its one of those settings that seems terrifically appealing because the author has made it so, though in reality I doubt I would really enjoy living in Kurravaara, a village outside Kiruna so far north that in the winter the sun barely shows its face and in April, when this story takes place, the sun rises before 4 a.m. Rebecka Martinsson, who is now working as a prosecutor, seems happy, settled in the home that she left in her late teens after a difficult set of circumstances, described in the first book in the series, Sun Storm (apa The Savage Altar). She spent lonely years in Stockholm as a student, then as a obsessively hardworking tax lawyer, only called home to the north when a friend was in trouble. Things haven’t been easy for her, and events in previous books were traumatic, but as Until Thy Wrath Be Past opens, Rebecka seems grounded and fulfilled.

Snow, thought district prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson, shivering with pleasure as she got out of her car at the house in Kurravaara.

It was seven in the evening. Snow clouds enveloped the village in a pleasant, dusky haze. Martinsson could barely make out the lights from the neighboring houses. And the snow was not just falling. Oh no, it was hurtling down. Cold, dry, fluffy flakes cascaded from the sky, as if someone up there were sweeping them down, doing the housework.

My farmor, my father’s mother, of course, Martinsson thought with a trace of a smile. She must always be on the go, scrubbing the good Lord’s floor, dusting, hard at work. I expect she’s sent Him out to stand on the porch.

Her farmor’s house, faced with gray, cement-fiber Eternit siding seemed to be hiding itself in the gloom. It appeared to have taken the opportunity to have a nap. Only the outside light above the green-painted steps whispered quietly: Welcome home, my girl.

She is soon presented with what seems an unfortunate tragedy: the body of a long-missing girl is found in a river. She and her boyfriend went diving months ago, and now that her body has  been discovered, authorities conclude they died in an accident. But readers know they were murdered, that while diving in an ice-bound lake someone deliberately blocked the hole they had cut in the ice. We learn in the opening pages exactly what happened from point of view of the girl, who remains in the story, observing and commenting on the action. Though I am not fond of supernatural elements in mysteries, Larsson pulls it off in large part because the dead girl is a vividly-realized character in her own right, a maverick child of a neglectful mother who came to live with her great-grandmother, who delights in the company of this irreverent, rebellious child. The passages that give us her point of view after death give the reader a strong sense of a willful, daring young woman who won’t rest until her story is told.

Rebecka, inspired by a dream, suggests that the water in the dead girl’s lungs be tested, and so they discover that the girl drowned in a lake, where in the late years of World War II a Nazi supply plane went down. Someone, it seems, wants to be sure the wreck is never found. She and Inspector Anne-Marie Mella, who has become estranged from her closest colleagues following a decision she made in The Black Path, begin to investigate. In some ways, this isn’t much of a mystery; we have a strong inkling of who in the small village is likely responsible and we see some of the story from the point of view of a participant or witness to the murder. And yet, Larsson has created a compelling story as we peel back the historical layers and the tainted relationships behind the deliberate drowning of two young people.

I loved the first book in the series, and admired The Black Path (though I found the ending in both books to be out of scale with the rest, a bit too over-the-top). In this latest volume in the series, Larsson really hits her stride. She has given us a cast of characters we have come to know and care about, a setting that is vivid, a ghostly young woman who has a grounded, earthy reality, and a compelling story that explores Sweden’s troubling relationship with Nazi Germany. She offers a terrific combination of psychologically probing character development, action, and (for lack of a better word) a kind of poetry in her writing style that makes this series a particularly fine contribution to the genre. Highly recommended.

By the way, Maxine also includes Asa Larsson as she takes the SinC25 expert challenge – and links to her reviews of all the books in the series.

Three more women authors who seem somehow similar to Asa Larsson:

  • Karin Alvtegen – who has a similar interest in the underlying psychology driving characters.
  • Karin Fossum – who also examines the many layers of complexity in seemingly innocent small communities.
  • Laura Lippman – who explores the long-term consequences of troubled relationships and childhood insults.

SinC25, #6 – Lene Kaaberbøl & Agnete Friis

November 13, 2011

Agnete Friis, Lene Kaaberbøl, and Bronwen Hruska at Bouchercon 2011

As slowly as I am working my way through this challenge – to write about ten women crime fiction authors and recommend three similar authors for each – I am tempted to make this number six and seven, but that would be cheating. Certainly when you read Kaaberbøl and Friis’s first collaborative effort, The Boy in the Suitcase, there is no roughness to indicate there is more than one author at work. The translation, by Kaaberbøl herself, is also smooth, making it easy for the Danish-deficient reader to get lost in a good book.

And a very good book this is, too. In the first scene, a woman has been persuaded to pick up a suitcase at a train station by a frantic friend. Before she puts the heavy case in her car, she decides to see what’s inside, and is surprised to see a small boy.

His knees rested against his chest, as if someone had folded him up like a shirt. Otherwise he would not have fit, she supposed. His eyes were closed, and his skin shone palely in the bluish glare of the fluorescent ceiling lights. Not until she saw his lips part slightly did she realize he was alive.

What follows is a choppy series of scenes from various points of view. A man in Denmark gets a picture of the boy and a phone call asking if he accepts a deal. A man dreams about a family he doesn’t have and fantasizes about a house outside Krakow where he hopes to live with the woman he loves as soon as he’s finished one little thing. A woman watches her son play in the sand at a park. And then there’s Nina Borg, who had just lost the moral high ground in a confronts an abusive man who is coaxing an immigrant woman away from the shelter where she’d sought refuge. Before she can catch her breath, she gets a phone call from a friend who is desperate and needs a favor. She wants Nina to pick up a suitcase at the train station. As she says to Nina, “you know about such things.”All of these fragments lead up to the opening scene and Nina’s impulse to make the little boy safe.

Nina does, indeed, know about the things desperate people do, and about the reasons a small boy might be drugged and smuggled into Denmark. She works with immigrants who have come to Denmark without papers. She doesn’t trust Danish authorities who are quick to deport her desperate clients, but she realizes she’s caught between them and people who would kill her without compunction. She is a complex character who feels compelled to save the world, but can’t spare any attention or affection for her own children. She’ll fly to Africa to work with refugees, not so much because the Africans need her as that she feels a need to put herself into extreme situations. She’s an irritating mess, but the authors trust their readers enough to give us a less-than-ideal protagonist. Throughout the story our sympathy is called on in uncomfortable ways. Of course we feel for the mother of an abducted child, but we also are privy to humanizing elements of the man who carried out the kidnapping.

The authors have done a terrific job of creating an involving story out of complex contemporary issues by focusing on the particulars: on characters under stress, on the little things that make us care. They also show a great deal of respect for readers. The thrills aren’t mechanical and the way the story is constructed challenges the standard “hero’s journey” recipe for suspense and resolution. Nina Borg is so far from heroic, she calls the very idea of heroism into question. Flaws that are commonly forgiven in male protagonists – becoming so obsessed with a cause that his spouse and children are neglected, bucking authority as a matter of principle, taking life-endangering risks – are harder to forgive when the character is female, and that should make us think. Why do we see some qualities as strengths in men, but somehow disturbing in women? Are heroes who risk everything more selfish than they appear?

One of the reasons I like this book so much is that the authors ask us to participate in making sense of the story and a protagonist complex enough to match. Oh, and did I mention it’s a corker of a story? Three cheers for Soho for adding this terrific series to their already impressive list.

Now for the difficult bit. (I had no idea this would be so tricky when I cooked up this challenge.) Three women authors who are in some way similar:

  • Sara Paretsky, whose V. I. Warshawski is sometimes insufferably self-righteous, yet also prone to bouts of self-doubt;
  • Liza Marklund whose series heroine Annika Bengtzon resists the anchor-weight that the role of wife and mother sometimes puts on her when she’s hot on the heels of a story;
  • and Abigail Padgett whose characters are smart and principled women with serious emotional problems, including Bo Bradley who doesn’t routinely take her bipolar medications and Blue McCarron, an anti-social social scientist who is sometimes aggravatingly sententious.

SinC25, #5 – Tana French

October 23, 2011

This is my fifth entry for the Sisters in Crime 25th Anniversary Book Bloggers Challenge.

When I got Tana French’s third novel to review, I opened it with some trepidation. I was impressed with her first book, In the Woods, but I was more than usually frustrated by it, too. I found so much of the writing really brilliant, but the brilliance was thrown about (it seemed to me) indiscriminately, so that the scenes that mattered were no better dressed than the ones that really didn’t, like wearing diamonds on a track suit because they’re such lovely diamonds. And I disliked the narrator intensely for being so immature and coy and apparently proud of being utterly neurotic, and I disliked his equally immature female partner. I skipped the second book because the premise sounded so implausible and I was afraid I’d experience that same mixture of delight and disappointment.

But  Faithful Place was a top-notch read for me. It’s about a no-nonsense cop from a hardscrabble part of Dublin who parted with his roots and his family when he joined the police, which seen from the perspective of his neighborhood was as good as joining the enemy. His break from his family and the close-knit community of Faithful Place actually came earlier, when he planned to elope with a girl he loved, the two of them planning to Ireland for a new life. She stood him up, and he was left stranded, estranged from his past but without the future he’d dreamed about.The next best way to start fresh is to sign on as a police officer.

He’s done well and gone on to undercover work and, as the novel opens, is running complex undercover operations. He learns that his girl’s suitcase was found jammed up the chimney of an abandoned house. Her betrayal, the betrayal that shaped his life, is suddenly something very different, and he has to return home to find out what happened to her all those years ago.

Faithful Place is story about a family, their sense of belonging, and the place they call home. The city block where they live their claustrophobic lives becomes an emotional landscape that’s bigger and more dramatic than that of those globe-trotting thrillers in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance. It’s also a microcosm of a nation at a particular point in time that has a lot to say about how macroeconomic forces shape people’s lives. French’s writing style is just as talented as it was in her first book, but much more controlled and in scene after scene pitch-perfect. It’s funny and touching and sometimes poetic in a very Irish vein, and while the story itself may not be full of surprises, neither is Greek tragedy. This is one of those mysteries where character, setting, and its sense of place really carry the day.

Three similar women authors of crime fiction . . . let’s see . . .

  • Denise Mina – who is also good at nailing a time and place and has terrific dialogue that conveys those things;
  • Margaret Maron – who is very different in tone, but who created a strong sense of place and family in The Bootlegger’s Daughter;
  • and Jennifer McMahon – who writes very well indeed about the close relationships that children develop and the very richly detailed worlds they inhabit.



SinC25 Challenge – a roundup of posts

October 18, 2011

It has been a while since I last took stock of who has been taking the challenge. High time I provided some links from bloggers who are writing about women crime writers in response to my invitation to mark Sisters in Crime‘s 25th anniversary.

Maxine Clarke has been flexing her reading muscles in a big way. As a regular reviewer for Euro Crime and the founder of the friendly FriendFeed Crime & Mystery Fiction group she keeps her finger on the pulse of mystery publishing – and at her own blog, Petrona, she posts lots of excellent reviews and commentary. For the medium challenge she has profiled the following women authors, all from different countries:

  • Diane Setterfield, author of The Thirteenth Tale, paired with Charlotte Bronte;
  • Catherine Sampson, reminding me of some books set in China that I’ve been meaning to read, paired with Liza Marklund and Diane Wei Lang;
  • Saskia Noort, a Dutch author who is also a resident of my TBR, paired with Claudia Pineiro and Simone van der Vlugt;
  • Katherine Howell, author of an Australian police procedural series that sounds very interesting, paired with Sue Grafton; and
  • Miyuke Miyabe, a Japanese author who has just gone on my long list of writers to try, paired with Dominique Manotti.

Maxine has not only completed the easy and moderate challenges, but she plans to tackle the expert one, as well! I’m looking forward to it, and hope she will remember the tight deadline of “whenever.”

At The Bunburyist, scholar and author of short stories Elizabeth Foxwell has several posts filled with erudition. In one post she profiles women with “Ink in their Blood – women writers who started out as journalists, including Edna Buchanan, Carol Nelson Douglas, Gillian Linscott, Eve K. Sandstrom, and Celestine Sibley. “AKA” presents five women who wrote under pseudonyms:  M.C. Beaton (Marion Chesney), David Frome /Leslie Ford (Zenith Jones Brown), Anthony Gilbert (Lucy Beatrice Malleson), Evelyn Piper (Merriam Modell), and Dell Shannon (Elizabeth Linington). What a lot of creativity among those women and their multiple pseudonyms. And what interesting backstories for the authors who first wrote the news.

At Goodreads, Norma Huss profiles Dorothy Gilman, an author who inspired her own writing, adding to her profile M.C. Beaton and Carolyn G. Hart.

Sarah Ward at Crimepieces takes the challenge by writing about Asa Larsson, whose new book Until Thy Wrath Be Past is definitely one I intend to read as soon as possible. She also recommends five other women authors: Mari Jungstedt, Fred Vargas, Jennifer Egan, Ann Cleeves, and Yrsa Sigurdardottir.

Mrs. Peabody investigates Ingrid Noll’s mystery, The Pharmacist, which sounds quite creepy and psychologically suspenseful. She also recommends Josephine Tey, Fred Vargas, Maj Sjowall, Dominique Manotti, and P.D. James.

The library director at Goshen Public Library highlights some women writers for the challenge, including Sheila Connolly’s Fundraising the Dead

Bernadette, who contributes to Fair Dinkum Crime and writes thoughtful reviews at her own blog, Reactions to Reading, has added a couple of blog posts to the challenge. In her second challenge post, she focuses on historical crime fiction, with a new favorite, Ariana Franklin in the lead, adding notes about Elizabeth Peters, Imogen Robertson, and Victoria Thompson. (My, I have a lot of catching up to do.)  She also profiles “genre busters” – women writers who have done something different within the genre. She starts with an intriguing feminist author, Finola Moorhead, whose Still Murder was published in 1991 by Australian publishing house Spinifex which specializes in “innovative and controversial feminist books with an optimistic edge.” She adds to the genre busters Natsuo Kirino, Dorothy Porter, and Karin Alvtegen.

And – oh my goodness, here’s Laurie King, who is rising to the challenge with a few words about S. J. Rozan and her new book, Ghost Hero, a Lydia Chin book that she calls “a zinger.”

Thanks to all who are participating. If you feel inspired to take the challenge – at whatever level – tag your posts SinC25 and I’ll look for them. At the end of this process, I’ll compile a list of all the authors mentioned. I know I’ve already added a lot to my “to be read” list.

photos courtesy of soyrosa and moriza; postcard courtesy of janwillemsen.