Think of a crime book or film. I’m talking major hitters, gritty ones that require action and thinking and intelligent development. And now ask yourself: is the protagonist male or female? Chances are it’s a chap. See, we are bombarded, as a cultural society, with fiction told from the male viewpoint. And, do you know what? That fiction is darn good, has shaped how we think, what we say, has shaped how we write and create and surge forward. It has shaped me.
I’m a huge crime fiction fan. Book, TV, film – you name it, if it’s a cracking story, I’m in. But here’s the odd thing: until recently, I never noticed just how male dominated that world is. Think about it. The book you have read, the films you have watched – nine times out of ten, there’ll be a male protagonist calling the shots, often protecting a female character.
This fiction is widely loved, but it was only when Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy came out that I really began to question what makes a strong crime protagonist. Yes, mercifully, there have been some huge female icons – DCI Jane Tennison in Lynda La Plante’s stunning Prime Suspect novel immediately comes to mind, but the Tennisons of this world are few and far between. And why? Because society is scared, I believe, to imagine women as strong or violent, even.
Now, here’s the reality: I began writing The Spider in the Corner of the Room with a male protagonist. My trained-by-society brain went into automatic pilot and created a bloke as the main character, but, eight chapters in, and something wasn’t working. And so, that night, I went to the cinema to see the James Bond film, Skyfall.
There’s a character in Skyfall, a female spy, who, at the beginning, is strong, decisive, but, by the final scene of the movie, is, instead, portrayed as weak, having been relegated to a PA because she couldn’t, ‘cut it in the field.’ Say what? I was watching the film with my daughter and it made me so cross; here was a woman – and to a greater extent, women in general – being, basically, depicted as feeble. So, film over, I charged home, immediately changed my protagonist’s voice to a strong, complex woman and Dr Maria Martinez was born.
And it worked, creating Maria. It made sense not only on the page (the words just flew out), but in my head as well. Because I now had a character who was real, flawed, intelligent, strong – and she had Asperger’s. Not only did it feel right, developing Maria – it felt empowering.
So hopefully, when you think of a crime book, with the way society is evolving, chances are you’ll think of one that happens to contain a strong female lead. That and maybe some blood and creepy scenes. Because, you know, male or female we’ve got to have our cracking crime reads, right?
The Spider in the Corner of the Room by Nikki Owen, published by MIRA, paperback, £7.99