Flu at this time of year is a pain, but I’ve made good use of some of the enforced sofa-time by catching up on a few recorded tv programmes, including ‘Serial Killers: The Women Who Write Crime Fiction’.
Part of the long-running ‘Imagine’ strand of cultural programming on BBC, this examined the current popularity of reading and particularly writing crime amongst women. I say ‘current’, but as the programme itself made clear, many of the best known crime writers of the last hundred years have been women, so this is really nothing new.
The content of the programme was fascinating. There was lots of detail about forensic science, from the amazing scale models of crime scenes made in the 19th century as teaching aids for detectives right through to modern, state of the art forensic laboratories and new ways of preserving evidence and bodies. There were also lots of interviews with scientists, criminologists and, of course, the (mostly) female crime writers themselves, including Patricia Cornwell, Val McDermid, Martina Cole, and even (via archive footage) P D James and Ruth Rendell. All were well spoken, and all shed considerable light on their own particular reasons and methods for writing about crime.
Where ‘Serial Killers’ fell down was in its direction, or lack of it. It didn’t seem to have a clear-cut message, but wandered from one writer to another, one anecdote to another. The only underlying question it set itself was why women are so interested in crime fiction, and that’s where I really started to have problems. Because my own immediate response is, why shouldn’t they be interested? Is there something about crime that should only appeal to men? Should women be sensitive, easily shocked little flowers better entertained by recipes and the latest lipstick colours? Surely the real question is why anyone enjoys crime fiction. The answer to that, I firmly believe, has nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with an interest in the human psyche, a fascination with characters who by definition have removed themselves from the norms of human society, and a love of solving puzzles.
In the hands of the rather old-fashioned male presenter Alan Yentob, the whole thing felt uneasily patronising. The writers who took part weren’t quite asked ‘what’s a nice girl like you doing writing stuff like this?’ but at times it came painfully close. The approach missed a wonderful opportunity to examine the real, deep-seated reasons people like crime fiction. It also short-changed the many excellent male crime writers out there, and reinforced old stereotypes by implying that there’s a difference between male and female writers. The beauty of crime fiction is that it’s one of the few genres that has mass appeal, that sucks in every gender, race, colour and creed in a shared love of mystery, thrill and detection. What a shame the programme did so little to celebrate, or even mention, that.