Monday, 22 November 2010

Women and Crime Fiction

“People are weird,” says Sophie Hannah, UK crime novelist. “Myself included.”

It’s Friday 22nd October- Day 9 of the Manchester Literature Festival. I’m at Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery for the event, Women and Crime Fiction. Tonight Sophie is in conversation with Val McDermid, also a crime writer, in the gallery’s main hall. Keeping the discussion fair and square is June Davis from Manchester Waterstones.

I’m the only “young” man in the 100-strong audience- unsurprising, given the event title- in fact 90% of us are women in their forties. The topic- the immense, morbid fascination people have with crime fiction. Why do we enjoy reading about murder? Particularly, why do women love this subject?

Val mentions that the violence in her novels often takes people by surprise. “People say, ‘Your novels are very dark.’ Yes,” she explains, her eyebrows raised for emphasis, “They’re crime novels!” She explains that this is particularly the case with Scottish crime novels. Irvine Welsh is the only Scottish writer that I’m familiar with, and his books Crime and Trainspotting are very dark. So I concur there.

Val doesn’t let morbidity get in the way of humour, however. She knows that, no matter how disturbing a story could be, it must have a few chuckles along the way. In fact she claims that, in real life, some of her best laughs have been at funerals. She also discusses researching the emergency services, saying that ambulance drivers have a habit of making “sick jokes” about their work. I’d cite the film Bringing Out the Dead, by Martin Scorsese, if you wanted to know a little more about that.

Sophie explains she recently went to “a room full of people paid to pretend to be people I made up.” I’ll give you a moment to decipher that…

Yes, a production company is filming one of her novels! First of the Last Chances, her fifth novel, is in the movie pipeline. Or so she says. Google ain’t saying much though.

Val has also had her work committed to celluloid. She mentions that she visited a read-through, where actors sit together at a table and act out the script. It’s normally the first time the actors will collaborate on a day’s work. She tells us that, at these times, actors will read their lines totally flat with no emotion. Thespians love to save their performances for the cameras.

Sophie proved herself not quite the bastion of gender equality when she claimed that “men can be relied upon to find something that they think is really interesting, but isn’t.” Her husband was apparently enthralled by a documentary on rare lizards, which confused her. From a man’s perspective… it depends on the lizard, doesn’t it?

After the discussion the panel answered audience questions.

Sophie has written some graphic details in her career as an author, but tells us the issues that she “couldn’t write about” were terminal illness and state executions. Everyone has their own taboo, I suppose.

Sophie describes a particularly helpful interview with a police officer, which she conducted for research some time ago. She found out that he was a psycho as well! Bonus! He was arrested for a violent crime some time later.

She also tells us of a reading group in an unlikely place- a prison. The violent inmates LOVE her work! She claims she turned down an offer to perform a reading. I would have done a meet and greet if I was I her situation. But that’s just me.

The talk ends with a discussion about the freedom that crime writing brings. In the real world, the panel agree, women get tougher sentences for murder because society expects women to be nicer than men. A woman killing someone is, supposedly, more shocking than a man doing so. To physically kill someone is, clearly, not the nicest of things to do and this will probably land you in prison (perhaps being interviewed by a crime writer, if you’re lucky.) However, writing about such things is largely harmless. In particular, society tells women to be the nice ones- anthropology does too. Men use violence to hunt, gather and protect. Women don’t. Today, though, women can be as violent as they like- and get paid for it. If they happen to be a novelist.

Recommended reading:
Sophie Hannah

Val McDermid

Waterstones Deansgate

The Whitworth Art Gallery

The official Manchester Literature Festival event blog

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