Thursday, January 13, 2011

Women Writing Contemporary Crime Fiction

Last year, Auckland University lecturer Dr Siv Jansson, who teaches English at the University, held a night course on 'Classic Detective Fiction' as part of the University's Centre for Continuing Education (CCE) courses (basically, night and weekend courses). At the time I said that it was fantastic for such a course to be held, and noted (as did several commentators) that the required reading for the course (13 books) was a pretty good overview of the genre, if a little weak in terms of the modern era choices (see blog post and associated reader comments here).

Now Dr Jansson is hosting another course for the upcoming CCE semester: "Women Writing Contemporary Crime Fiction". I think it's terrific that the University clearly got a good enough response to continue with more crime fiction courses, and it's great that some of the excellent female crime writers of modern times are being looked at. Here's the blurb for the course:

"Why are women such prolific writers - and readers - of crime fiction? Historically and in modern-day crime writing the woman writer, it could be argued, dominates the genre. This course aims to explore why, with reference to six major female crime authors currently writing, such as P.D. James, Elizabeth George and Kathy Reichs."

The course runs over six consecutive Saturday mornings (10.30am-12.30pm) from 5 March to 6 April 2010. Looking at the 'course outline' and 'learning outcomes', they state:

Course outlineThe purpose of the course will be to consider why there are so many successful women writers of crime fiction: what attracts both female writer and reader to the genre, and what may differentiate their writing from male crime writers; secondly, to look at each of these writers, considering narrative style, characterisation, and approach to genre and subject-matter. Participants will need to have read at least one novel by each author.

  • Week 1 PD James
  • Week 2 Ruth Rendell
  • Week 3 Sara Paretsky
  • Week 4 Elizabeth George
  • Week 5 Linda Fairstein
  • Week 6 Kathy Reichs
Learning outcomes
On completion of the course learners will be able to:
  • Demonstrate a wider knowledge of crime fiction, particularly that written by women
  • Identify stylistic features which may be specific to women crime writers
  • Analyse crime fiction from a gender and genre point of view.
This course is designed for fans of crime fiction and those with an interest in gender and writing
It certainly looks like an interesting course, and it's also fascinating to see which six contemporary female crime writers Jansson has chosen as the required reading. Once again, I think she has done a fairly good job, although there are some weaknesses with the most recent/modern choices - in my opinion it may have been better to include at least one or more of the likes of Val McDermid, Sue Grafton, Louise Penny, Patricia Cornwell, Karin Slaughter, Mo Hayder, Camilla Lackberg, Liza Marklund, Faye Kellerman, Tami Hoag, Tess Gerritsen, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Denise Mina etc than the trio of George/Fairstein/Reichs. There could have been a little more international flavour, or recognition of some of those other (even more influential, in several cases) authors, perhaps.

From a New Zealand perspective, it would have been great to see Jansson include Vanda Symon or Paddy Richardson too, introducing local readers to our own 'contemporary' female crime writers and perhaps looking at how they compared to overseas authors or similarly or differently reflected the trends she is looking to discuss - but oh well. Jansson does appear to have a particular fondness for George and Reichs (she included them both in her 'classic' course required reading as well).

What do you think of the women crime writers course? Does it sound like something you would be interested in? Which six contemporary crime writers would you choose if you were setting up such a course, and why? I'd love to read what you think, please leave a comment.


  1. If you are referring to women writers, then I would set up the following reading list of six writers:

    PD James, England, contemporary
    Karin Fossum, Norway, contemporary
    Fred Vargas, France, contemporary
    Agatha Christie, England, classic
    Batya Gur, Israel, contemporary
    Malla Nunn, South Africa, contemporary

    I'm going to post this now because if I sit here any longer, I will change it again and again. Six is too few.

  2. The list is underwhelming Craig. So much so it prompted a bit of a rant from me

  3. I agree it is an unimaginative list - big emphasis on classic names plus schlock thrillers (not crime fiction in my book). Some of the names you mention plus eg Unity Dow, Karin Alvtegen, Helene Tursten, Karen Campbell, Yrsa Sigurdardottir et al, could make a more eclectic, and hence interesting, mix.

  4. Some good recommendations there guys. Thanks for the Fossum mention Fred - I was typing this late yesterday and mental-blocked to the female Norwegian star's name... Vargas could be a good call too. I'm just shocked McDermid isn't on the list.

    I think because it was 'contemporary' women crime writers, they left off Marsh, Christie, Allingham etc (some who were in the previous course's reading list), but because PD James and Rendell are still writing, they are contemporary as well as classic - so I think given their influence you need to have at least one of them, if not both...

  5. Here's my comment I left at Reactions to Reading:

    In defence of the course (and I agree that they could have picked a better six authors in terms of looking at contemporary crime fiction), this is one of the first-ever crime fiction themed 'literature' courses the University has run. So of course they're going to have to feature some quite well-known authors, as it is something of an introduction to the genre, for casual fans more than just highly-specialised readers and reviewers. And that's a good thing - we want to get more people reading, talking about, and appreciating crime fiction - not just all of us specialised blogger types.

    As such, it would be somewhat pointless to use a whole lot of authors that most of the public had never heard of, in terms of trying to get people to take the course - for me the best option is to have some big names, and maybe put in one or two more 'niche', up-and-coming, or lesser-knowns in terms of 'stretching' the class and introducing them to new things.

    Only six authors is tough. I think you have to have at least one of PD James/Ruth Rendell - both probably deserve to be there, but if you want more diversity in the course, you could use one, as they are both of the same type/sub-genre, somewhat. I'd go with PD James.

    I think you have to have Paretsky too - she was hugely important and influential in the genre, both in terms of female writers and female heroine (the way they're written, issues faced etc).

    Then you could pick four others to try to flesh out other locations/sub-genres etc. I'd probably pick Cornwall (esp her early stuff) over Reichs - even though I've preferred Reichs to read lately, because she kind of led the way for the popularity of forensic-focused crime/thrillers, which is an important/large part of the genre (both in books and on TV/film) over the past couple of decades.

    You'd want at least one Scandinavian/continental European in translation, as that's become a growing and important part of the genre, and would be interesting for the students to study and compare. So Karin Fossum, Camilla Lackberg, Karin Alvetgen, Liza Marklund, Ann Holt, Fred Vargas etc.

    For me, as a NZ-based course, they should try to get at least one Kiwi contemporary female crime writer in there - both in terms of appreciating our own fiction, but also from a study point of view it could be very interesting for the students to see how female crime writers deal with the local issues/characters/geography etc. So Vanda Symon, Paddy Richardson, Alix Bosco (if she is a female), Dorothy Fowler, Joan Druett (although her novels are historical), Andrea Jutson, etc. I'd probably go with Vanda Symon (four very good books, with an interesting continuing character).

    Then, with one left, you'd need to choose between having another important 'name' from the genre - eg Val McDermid, Sue Grafton etc - who has been influential/led the way/been important etc; or perhaps trying to broaden the list with something of a different style (the incredibly popular lighter adventures of a Janet Evanovich type, perhaps?) or geography (Asia/South Africa etc).

    As others have said, six is far too few, and I'm sure we could all come up with completely different lists that had a lot of merit. But I agree, a little bit of a missed opportunity (Fairstein, really? - I guess she is popular, has written a lot of books, and gives a modern NYC/legal + crime thing, but still....)

  6. I do agree Craig that you couldn't get rid of all the six - I'd go with Rendell (in preference to James because she has more variety and her current stuff is better than James' IMHO) and Paretsky for the 'contemporary classics'. If you need another 'name' then Fairstein's books make sense due to the subject matter - her main character is a female DA for the New York Sexual Assault Unit so the books are very much about women and the issues that impact them. She also has a mix of legal and forensic threads in the books so you could get all of that out of the way without having to trawl through Reichs and Cornwell - both of whom have lost whatever originality they once had.

    Then I'd have three lesser known authors as well - off the top of my head I'd choose Denise Mina (range of series, fantastic female characters), Karen Alvtegen or Liza Marklund (I've not read Marklund myself but from what I hear she would suit this kind of theme with her very strong female character, Alvtegen would provide a contrast as her books are all standalone psychological suspense) and then a New Zelanand writer (the only one I've read more than one book from is Vanda Symon and she would be fine but if there is someone else that could be recommended then that would be fine too).

  7. I think it's a great idea, but I would not have chosen Fairstein or Reichs. Any of the Scandinavian writers would have been a better fit, and also Louise Penny, and Donna Leon definitely.


    Zulema Seligsohn

  8. I might've included Sophie Hannah or Kate Atkinson. Perhaps Tana French. Or someone still relatively unknown, but whose first work is worth a much wider look, in my opinion--Canada's Nadine Doolittle. Introducing some super contemporary authors--women just now rising to the height of their power--would've added a whole other dimension. But I bet everyone will learn a lot from this list.

  9. A few years ago the University of Kentucky did a course on women mystery writers that compared and contrasted the different styles. Hard boiled/soft boiled, classic/contemporary, pulp/literary, etc. It was an excellent course. I am glad to see others are including mystery in their offerings.