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Åsa Larsson Headshot

On Dead Women In Crime Fiction

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It has come to my attention that people are grumbling about how Swedish crime writers murder piles of women in their books. As a Swedish author of crime fiction, I instinctively want to raise my hand and call out, "Not me! Not me!" It's a problem that I've always carefully considered.

As a new writer, I nervously made a taxonomy of my murder victims. The first was a man. The second, third, and fourth, too. Phew! Number five was a woman. Six and seven were both men. Then two suicides, one of each sex. By this point, I had come to the end of my second novel. I kept on with the statistics. Out of seven murder victims, five were clergy.

No, I bear no ill against the church, I explained meekly, lowering my gaze, when journalists came with their questions.

My uncle, a vicar, called me.

"You have to stop killing priests," he said.

I promised to stop.

My uncle is actually the only person I know of troubled by all of the clergy whom I've had shot, beaten senseless, or bound with chains and lowered into lakes. But he didn't say anything about all the dead dogs. In my first two novels alone, I killed off five of our four-legged friends. Everyone else asks me, why do I have to kill so many dogs?

Why? I honestly think these are interesting questions. Why are women so disproportionately the victims of crime fiction's violent crimes? Why do I kill so many dogs?

I have always felt that literature mirrors the time in which it is written. It's not strange that we find murder in literature, as we find it reported in the news. In general, more men than women are the victims of deadly violence. But when the victim is female, the perpetrator is likely to be a man with whom she has some sort of relationship, and the crime is likely to happen at home. This is where fiction diverges from reality.

In crime fiction, women are not beaten to death by their husbands and in their bedrooms. Most often, they simply happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the fact is that in real-world Sweden, as in many countries, most murder victims who are victims of incidental rather than premeditated murder are young men, not young women.

In Western societies where entertainment, rather than religion, is often the dominant cultural force, stories of crime fiction serve as modern day parables -- a secular or agnostic answer to the didactic stories told from the pulpit in Church on Sundays. These stories ask similar questions of ourselves and our communities; who are we, what are our sins? How do we do evil, and how do we do justice? How are things, and how should they be?

In the stories of the Bible, when God sees an injustice done, God grants vengeance by serving justice. God's path is one of pain.

In crime fiction, a murdered young woman is fished out of a lake by the police. A police inspector sees her, and she is identified, given a name, a story. The Police Inspector will make sure that justice is served and thereby avenge the victim. The Police Inspector's path is one of pain. He is never an average guy who maintains a healthy distance to his job, works out three days a week, has an agreement with his wife about Thursday rolls in the hay, and reaches his all-time low when lamenting his incipient bald spot. No, this Police Inspector works himself to the bone to solve the case, a case that plagues him, and in doing so he wreaks havoc on his personal life. His wife leaves him, he drinks too much, he has a poor relationship with his children. Workaholic, alcoholic, he is alone. This is the traditional path of a crime novel hero.

And herein lies the reason why the victim is, traditionally, a young woman or a child: so that we, the readers, will feel sympathy for the victim. After all, the victim must be worthy of the Police Inspector's suffering just as humanity must be worthy of God's suffering (For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son...)

If the victim is, say, a middle-aged man weighing over 300 pounds, he plays an entirely different role in the story than supporting the myth of the hero. If there's a 300-pound guy out there in the lake, I'm betting he plays an active role in the plot. That's how men are depicted in crime fiction -- as, literally, men of action. He has done something. Betrayed a mafia boss, cooked methamphetamine, or maybe transported prostitutes over the Russian boarder? On the other hand, if the victim is a woman, it is likely that her only mistake is timing -- wrong place, wrong time. This is problematic. But the problem is not with the number of women dying in crime novels, it's why they are dying.

In A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong writes, "Mythology was therefore designed to help us cope with the problematic human predicament. It helped people to find their place in the world and their true orientation." To put it simply, myth is meant to tell us how to act in this chaotic, inscrutable, threatening world, in order to maintain the kind of society we wish to have.

What, then, is the message being conveyed when a women ends up dead because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time? This is what I hear. Don't go out jogging alone in the woods. Don't walk the streets alone. Don't arrange to meet up with anyone you met online. Don't wear a short skirt, or have sex with strangers. Stay home with your husband! That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.

My fifteen year-old daughter wears layers upon layers of eye makeup, and she is far beyond a short skirt; when she leaves the house it looks as though she has left her pants behind on the bathroom floor. I'm her mother and I mind, but I don't want the lesson to her to be that the world is too dangerous a place for a woman in a short skirt. If you follow that lesson to its commonly cited conclusion -- one we hear from the mouths of politicians, pundits, and more on a regular basis -- if a woman is victimized while dressed provocatively, while intoxicated, for having an extramarital affair -- she has it coming.

Now the dogs are a completely different story. I have many dogs in my novels. No matter how much I humanize them, they have nothing to learn from crime fiction. If I read my own novels with my mythology-lenses on, my dogs are metaphors for a suffering God... I mean the Police Inspector. Or, in my case, my protagonist, Investigating Prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson. The dogs die because Martinsson so relentlessly pursues truth and justice. They are her crown of thorns. Like many crime writers, I give my protagonist a good once over.

So, should the writer count her murder victims? Make sure that she kills as many men as women, and preferably as few people as possible? And preferably no dogs? Should the writer think twice before writing about women who are murdered because they stay in a bar until closing with their hair down and ridiculously short skirts? And since we're on the topic of responsibility, should Rebecka Martinsson really eat non-organic meat? Should she eat meat at all? Shouldn't she be driving an eco-friendly car? Recycle more? Curse less?

The answers to those questions, though they are important questions, must be no. Writers need to take responsibility for their words, but fictional characters don't. The writer's freedom to make choices on behalf of her characters is an important one, for both writer and reader. And that applies to genre writers.

But we do need thinking readers to question the decisions that writers make, and the mirror worlds they create in their books. The reader should be alert and ask, why is she doing this? Or to say, this is bullshit! That's a wonderful thing. That is how is should be. Free thinking readers. Free writing writers.