Friday, December 4, 2009

Femmes Fatales

By Russel D McLean

It was a conversation with a friend that stared me thinking about women crime writers. A simple question; which of the current crop of female crime writers would I recommend? Who do I rate?

They should have known better than to ask.

It was my then-to-be-agent who gave me a copy of Vicki Hendricks’s Cruel Poetry; a novel that knocked me off my feet. Truly, I was smitten – and not just because Hendricks one of the few authors in the world who can write about sex in a way that doesn’t make me want to snort milk out of my nose. She hooked me with her voice, her characters, her attitude. This was a woman I could get; a woman writing about the world in a way that I could understand. She was cynical, dangerous, unpredictable and still did not disguise the fact that she was writing from a woman’s point of view.

I wanted more.

And soon enough I found it.

In Cathi Unsworth, who made my head explode with her thriller/faux punk biog The Singer; a sheer, neck-breaking scream of a novel that could have got me fired from the day job as I turned up late to shifts because I just had to know: what happened next? This book was truly something else, and it is to my eternal regret that this year when I found myself near Unsworth at the bar during the Harrogate Crime Festival this year I didn’t turn and say hello, tell her how that book just plain knocked me out.

I told my friend about how, when I saw the stunning painted cover to the unnaturally talented Christa Faust’s Money Shot, I was sold straight off. And Christa’s novel truly delivered on the promise of that cover – deadly, provocative and beautiful noir set in a world that is often used to denote sin in most crime novels. What I loved was that this author used her unique setting of blue movies in such a way that she didn’t demonise her lead character’s choice of profession so much as normalise it, creating a strange kind of equality for a character one would normally expect to feel “exploited” in a more traditional kind of noir tale.

One of the books that truly captivated me of late – and this book, I didn’t dare put it down unless I truly had no choice – was Megan Abbott’s stunning Bury Me Deep, which continues the author’s fascination with the same 1930’s noir-land that James Ellroy once inhabited, where the gumshoes and femme fatales walked the dark alleys. But she tackles this mis-en-scene but from a decidedly female perspective. Abbott is a stunning writer, one whose voice grips and holds the reader, whose sheer style and energy crackles off the page. And if you want female noir, you have to pick up one of the best anthologies of the last few years, A Hell of A Woman, edited by Abbott herself.

And there were so many others out there I had to tell my friend about. As though, once I started to answer what should have been a simple query, I just couldn’t stop.

I told them about Zoe Sharp’s thrillers that beat most male writers hands down for sheer adrenaline rush. And Canadian Sandra Ruttan’s compassionate take on the police thriller that truly turns the tables on the reader to the point where you reach the last page of her second book and wonder, “did she just do that?”

And how could I not mention Laura Lippman, whose book, The Power of Three, did the most unexpected thing and made this cynical bastard shed a couple of tears by the book’s end. How the hell did that happen?

Closer to home, there is Denise Mina, who got me with her run on the Hellblazer comics, a run that convinced me I really had to pick up her actual books – and, oh yes, let me tell you I wasn’t disappointed (although there was a distinct lack of chain smoking mystics schlepping round the streets of Glasgow in her actual crime novels, but her voice and narrative were so strong that in the end it simply didn’t matter).

A simple question, then. But anyone who has a bookseller for a friend should know better than to ask them who they rate, what they love, the writers they dig. You can narrow it down all you like. You can say, “just the women” or “just the men” or “just the noir writers”, but if they’re anything like me, there’s going to be a whole list of authors they can think of. And along with the names, there’s going to be a host of reasons why they you’ll dig those writers.

So, to continue to help my friend, I turn to you, fellow DSDers (both the contributors and the commentors) to ask which female crime writers you’d recommend they read.


Jen said...

There have been two new female crime writers in the last few years who have absolutely blown me away. Chelsea Cain has three books out in a series, starting with Heart Sick. And Gillian Flynn has two stand-alones: Sharp Objects, and Dark Spaces. All of these books are brilliant and I can't wait for them to write more.

Paul D Brazill said...

Patricia Highsmith, from the olden days, the ones you mentioned and-going by her short storyies- Hilary Davidson.

David Cranmer said...

I can't find a fault with any of these choices. All superb talent carrying the torch forward. And I would add Littlefield, Davidson, Dickson, Seamans, Anonymous-9, and P. Abbott among my favorites.

John McFetridge said...

If you like the 30's LA setting then Linda L. Richards, Death was in the Picture and Death was the Other Woman are terrific.

Also, if you like traditinal cozies with really modern characters and attitude then Louise Penny's books are as good as the reviews say.

Chris said...

I really enjoyed Leigh Redhead's Peepshow. I wrote a review of it here, if you're interested:

Dana King said...

You've named everyone I would, except for Val McDermid. I've only read A Darker Domain but it's a great book, highly recommended.

Steve Weddle said...

I hate to do this because if I leave someone out, then I feel as if I'm doing a disservice to that writer.

But I don't want our readers to miss any of these talented folks, so I have to mention them.

OK. With apologies to whomever I forget and a promise I'll make it up to you somehow, these are the recent female crime writers I've enjoyed reading, in no order ->

JT Ellison, Alafair Burke, Toni McGee Causey, Patti Abbott, Hilary Davidson, Laura Lippman, Joelle Charbonneau, Donna Moore.

OK. Lemme get home tonight, check the shelves, and see which of my favorites I stoooopidly forgot.

Chris said...

Yeah, what Steve said. There are a number of names he mentions of women I've exchanged messages with but haven't actually read. Another one would be Rachel Brady. I have so many damn books to read it's not even funny. . . .

Brian Lindenmuth said...

Instead of omitting the ones already mentioned I'll just list the ones I've read and liked over the last couple of years. While I suspect that some will be repeats hopefully I can add a few new ones.

Helen Fitzgerald (The Devil's Staircase)

Cathi Unsworth (The Singer)

Summer Brenner (I-5)

Sophie Littlefield (A Bad Day For Sorry)

Anonymous-9 (short story writer)

Maggie Estep (Flamethrower)

Katie Kitamura (The Longshot)

Hannah Berry (graphic novel - Britten and Brulightly)

Lynda Barry (Cruddy - I did a forgotten friday post on it)

Elena Ferrante (The Lost Daughter - brilliant 1st person narrative. Only skirts the crime genre as it's really a novel of a very small crime)

Christa Faust (Money Shot)

Donna Moore (Go To Helena Handbasket)

Elizabeth Hand (Generation Loss)

Sara Gran (Dope, Come Closer - come back Sara!)

John McFetridge said...

And Sandra Ruttan.

The third book in the series, Lullaby for the Nameless is out now.

mike Dennis said...

Under Vicki Hendricks, I would also strongly recommend "Miami Purity" and "Voluntary Madness".

The other one said...

Ruth Rendell, in all her guises, but particularly her stand alones;

Lisa Lutz, in her one guise.

last year's girl said...

Helen Fitzgerald has already had some DSD love, but deserves more.

Totally agree about Money Shot's cover Russel, I haven't read it yet but it's been winking at me from Stringer's bookshelf for a while.

Russel said...

Some beautiful suggestions and reminders of some wonderful authors here.

Although I'm ashamed despite her DSD love, I still haven't read any Helen Fitzgerald. This shall be remedied.

And LYG - - read MONEY SHOT. Read it now.

Scott D. Parker said...

Arrived late to this party. Money Shot is among my favorite crime novels, period. Other favorite female writers include Megan Abbott and S. J. Rozan (just "discovered" her this year).

Zoƫ Sharp said...

Hi Russel

Thank you for the kind words - I'm honoured to be included in such fine company ;-]

I'd totally agree with Scott about SJ Rozan - her ABSENT FRIENDS is just haunting. Can I also add Tess Gerritsen and Gayle Lynds to the mix?

David H. said...

I'm surprised no one mentioned Theresa Schwegel. She should way up any list, male or female. Rachel Brady, to reiterate, is an exciting newcomer.SJ Rozan is as good as anyone gets, male or female, in or out of the genre. She never has an "off" book. If she were in the NBA, she'd have a triple-double every night. The ending of The Shanghai Moon took my breath away.