In a genre dominated by female readers and writers, why are dead women and girls still at the heart of the story?
Edgar Allen Poe famously wrote: “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” As most crime readers would know, many of the most popular crime titles kick off with a dead or missing woman.
Readers love dead women. I am, admittedly, one of those readers. It’s why I currently have five murdered women sitting on my bookshelf, waiting for their deaths to be solved. But it has me thinking: why is there such a disproportionate amount of female victims in crime fiction?
Statistics show that men are more likely to be murdered than women. An analysis of homicides in England and Wales conducted by the Office for National Statistics confirms this, concluding that 72% of homicide victims in the year concluding March 2022 were male. Yet, as we’ve seen time and time again, the majority of victims in crime thrillers are female.
There hasn’t been a formal investigation into the body count of women in crime fiction, but an informal survey of the top 50 best selling crime novels on Amazon, conducted randomly, showed the ratio of male to female victims is 1:3.
And it’s not something new. Violence towards women in books seems to be as old as crime fiction itself, dating back to the 1840’s. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which is considered to be the first modern detective story, tells the story of a man who is tasked with solving the brutal murders of two women.
One of the victims was a mother, who was found with broken bones and injuries so extreme that her head fell off when her body was moved, and the other was her daughter, who was strangled and stuffed into a chimney.
Over 180 years later, popular literature is still obsessed with the brutalisation of women. J.T. Ellison’s 2019 novel Good Girls Lie opens with the line: “The girl’s body dangles from the tall iron gates guarding the school’s entrance.” The body in question has been so disfigured that she could only be identified using her fingerprints.
And the morbid interest in the violent murdering of women is not limited to books in the Western world. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada is a novel that springs to mind, about an elderly artist who plans to murder six of seven women in his family, taking parts from each of their bodies to assemble into the perfect woman. Though he is found dead before he can carry out his plan, these women are still found dismembered and buried shortly after.
I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with writing fiction centred around murdered women. In fact, some of my favourite crime fiction novels feature female victims.
But crime as a genre is often fixated on facts—with crime writers consulting law enforcement to make sure they get every detail correct. It begs the question of why homicide statistics are something they can ignore? Why do readers accept this?
Dr Megan Hoffman, an independent scholar whose research centres around the links between gender and crime, believes that this phenomenon reflects a cultural fascination of women as victims. “I think it speaks to maybe a cultural preoccupation with women's bodies. Anytime you get a murder victim represented in any kind of crime narrative, like crime that people consume as entertainment, that body is kind of injected with all these kinds of cultural assumptions about their femininity and sexuality.”
As part of her PhD, she examined the portrayal of women in female victims written by female crime authors, publishing her findings in her book Gender and Representation in British ‘Golden Age’ Crime Fiction: Women Writing Women. When asked about the key differences between how male and female victims were written in the texts she analysed, she said: “I think you always, nearly without exception with female victims, find some kind of question about sexuality and sexual morality and assumptions about who they are linked with, their sexuality is always brought into it. And I don't think you find that with male victims.
“With male victims, you’re always following the money, following the business connections. But with women, it's always like, who is she sleeping with? I'm sure that comes from a larger cultural preoccupation with policing women's bodies and women's sexuality and needing to contain that and needing to obsess over that.”
She gave the example of the victim in Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library, a woman whose corpse is described as ‘a cheap, tawdry, flamboyant figure’ when characters first encounter the body. “There are all these assumptions about her and about her as a person and about her sexual morality, and then you come to find out that actually that wasn't the person they thought it was,” Dr Hoffman says. “The switching of these bodies kind of brings those assumptions about women's sexuality and morality to the forefront.”
Dr Hoffman also cited the need to sexualise female victims as one of the reasons behind the lack of diversity in the crime fiction genre. “A lot of the victims that you see are white women who are attractive, who are like middle class or upper middle class.
“This, by the way, goes for any crime narrative, like whether we're talking about crime fiction of 80 years ago or crime fiction of yesterday.
“For whatever reason, we're obsessed with these stories about attractive white women who are murdered, and I think it ties back to the fact that women’s bodies are often sexualised in crime fiction.
"People have such an interest in the victim being attractive, but they wouldn't feel the same for victims who are less attractive or of a lower-class background or of a different race. It's a huge shame because the attention to these cases takes attention away from other groups that are much more vulnerable to violent crime.”
You’d expect portrayals of women in this light to face backlash, yet many crime writers say they won’t stop writing books that focus on violence towards women.
Staunch Book Prize, founded by Bridget Lawless, is a prize for thrillers “in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.”
While it seems like a good idea, it has been heavily criticised by crime writers after its launch. New Statesman senior writer Kate Mossman wrote: “The themes she objects to can't be ignored because they reflect real life: Val McDermid says she'll continue to write about this stuff as long as it continues to happen.”
Despite female victims still being at the centre of crime fiction, there have been improvements in the way they’ve been written.
Dr Hoffman’s most recent research interests concern how crime narratives are changing considering the #MeToo movement, and the biggest change she’s noticed in crime fiction since the rise of feminist movements is the agency of the victim. “I almost think in contemporary crime narratives and modern crime narratives, it's almost a mark of the victim's worthiness if they're shown as being able to fight back more, isn't it? Women in general now are definitely depicted as being more active, as more physically able and I think that definitely carries through into crime narratives.”
The shift in the agency of the female victim is mainly attributed to the need to attract female readers, who recognise that it’s less socially acceptable to frame women as helpless damsels in distress, unable to fend for themselves.
Women are the biggest consumers of crime fiction, accounting for 60-80% of crime readers. Additionally, research has shown that women prefer reading novels written by women, as it’s easier to identify with the female characters in the book, leading to a rise in female crime authors.
In fact, a 2017 article by the Atlantic revealed a phenomenon where male authors started to adopt female pseudonyms to appeal to the wider female audience, who preferred reading thrillers written by women.
“I know there have been studies done kind of within the last few years that indicate that one of the top reasons why women consume crime narratives—true crime in particular, but I think it probably extends to all crime narratives—is to figure out how to avoid becoming a victim themselves, which is a very sad and scary and horrible motivation,” Dr Hoffman explained. “But that sits right beside the motivation for entertainment. Studies have found that these are both key motivators for why women consume these. So, it's an interesting tension.”
Sarah Ward, an author from the Crime Writers’ Association, agrees: “It's worth noting that women are predominantly the readers of crime fiction. They may be drawn to dark narratives which reflect their lived experiences." Her debut novel, In Bitter Chill, features two kidnapped girls, whose case is reopened following the suicide of one of the girls’ mothers. “In the past twenty years there's been a significant recognition of the need to challenge gender tropes, not only from the perspective of the victim but also representations of the killer and detective.”
Will crime fiction ever move away from having dead women as the centre of their story? I don’t think that shift will ever be made, but it isn’t necessarily a problem.
Sure, it’s boring to read the same formulaic murdering of an attractive white girl, and sure, it’s annoying when female corpses are sexualised, but it provides a safe space for women to explore their fears. As a society, we have a problem with misogyny and violence, and maybe crime fiction is just a reflection of that.
If you liked this post then read "Reading helped me understand my mental illness" - Mental health representation in books and why it matters or Why the rise in LGBTQ+ romance novels is important next.
Dr Megan Hoffman
Megan Hoffman holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of St Andrews. Her publications include a chapter entitled “Assuming Identities: Strategies of Drag in Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell Series” in Murdering Miss Marple: Essays on Gender and Sexuality in the New Golden Age of Women’s Crime Fiction and article entries in 100 American Crime Writers (2012) and 100 British Crime Writers (2016).
Shani is a journalism student obsessed with books, dance, and all things true crime. When she’s not stuck in the middle of a good book, she’s listening to podcasts or watching hour-long video essays on YouTube.
Favourite genre: Crime.