opinion: women in boxes.

While I love crime fiction—always have since my days of Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, and always will—like any relationship, there are faults. Occasionally I’ll bring them up as topics of discussion, and I’m happy for the opinions of anyone and everyone, though I am obviously always going to be right.


One thing that I am most frustrated by in crime fiction is the ridiculous lengths some authors will go to in perpetrating violence against women. Now, most people are reading crime for the mystery, to find out who committed a crime, whether they like to try and figure it out themselves or just let it wash over them. In order for you to care, authors must make the stakes high enough for you to want a resolution. I guess, then, their theory is that the worse the crime, the more you will want the case solved. So authors create the most atrocious of monsters.

However, I think this misses a lot of other points. Readers go into crime fiction because they understand the law and that breaking it has consequences; there are many laws, and they’re mostly in place for the safety of others. Stakes are almost always high in breaking the law; that’s the entire point. Still authors skip some crime—car theft, property theft, tax evasion—to go for the blood and gore and, let’s face it, sexual assault. Too much of crime falls back on the lazy trope of women being held hostage/murdered/raped, while some brave police officer tries to outwit the batshit insane person at the heart of it. This isn’t to say books with this plot are never good—of course some of them are—but I’m sick of reading about it. It’s in the news all the time. This is boring. I’ve read it a thousand times. Try something new.

This was made excruciatingly obvious to me recently when I sat happily with my fresh pile of crime new releases, going through them to pick out the best-looking ones to read (as I barely have time to brush my hair with a kid, let alone read three books a week like I used to.) I decided on Pierre Lamaitre’s Alex, as it had been collecting a lot of hype and I am always happy to feed into such things. It was fine, but I didn’t finish it—I got maybe a third of the way through, but, sick of the chapters and chapters about the titular Alex being stuck naked in a tortuous wooden box suspended from the ceiling, I decided I didn’t want to give it any more of my time and put it down in favour of the next on my list, Koethe Zan’s The Never List. Just imagine my enthusiasm when, far too swiftly, another woman appeared in a wooden box, trapped in a basement. I put it down and took a few days off reading crime altogether. (I think that’s about the time I discovered Candy Crush on my phone and became trapped in a metaphorical box of chocolate-destroying.)

Now, I did finish (and enjoy) The Never List, and the person who requested a look at Alex said I shouldn’t have stopped and that it was a great book, but—seriously—when two books at the same time have this ridiculous and similar torture of women it just makes me so frustrated. (It is also worth noting, however, that from what I read, neither of the boxed women suffered sexual assault alongside the physical torture.)

Another book that took female-based violence to a different level was Australian Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders. Having heard really positive things about him, but never having read anything by him before, I was glad to grab a copy, not knowing it wasn’t quite as light-hearted as his previous books. On the contrary, it was so gruesome that I felt almost physically sick sometimes; he absolutely did not hold back on any graphic violence that his main antagonist committed, and even remembering it right now makes me go a bit pale. I have quite a strong stomach despite the point of this piece, but I don’t remember being this affected since I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The book gets a fairly decent Goodreads score and was well written, but—and here’s the rub—I found it difficult to read past the violence to enjoy the story; I just wanted it to be over. (As I mentioned in a previous review, a fabulous antidote to this book is Maggie Groff’s Good News, Bad News—where the crime is a missing husband returning from the dead.)

This isn’t all to say that there can be no violence against women in books. We make up half of the population, so kill half of us off if you really feel it is necessary. But I, and other readers I’ve spoken to, now avoid a book if it contains the crime of torture or sexual violence against women, because it’s been done, and it happens in reality far too often. If you are a publishable author, you have the skills to haul in a reader’s interest without resorting to these overdone felonies. Every crime has its stakes; raise them with great writing, characters you almost feel next to you, and some original ideas. Go write a book about stealing persimmons from a neighbour’s tree. I promise you I’ll read it.


9 thoughts on “opinion: women in boxes.

  1. I totally agree. Men are generally killed in cold blood, BAM, that’s the end of that character! Women though, it seems like they can’t just be killed or beaten up in a book, there has to be some kind of horrible torture or clearly implied threat of rape to show the seriousness of the bad guy.

    As you know I am not a squeamish kind of person either but I think sometimes writers just use it because that is what everyone else is doing.
    A perfect example for me was Dragon Tattoo, I enjoyed that, all the way until I didn’t and that scene ruined the whole book for me. Actually, I haven’t bothered to look at another in the series since.

    • So true! Like we don’t think a crime is serious enough if it’s just murder, because we’re all cool with that as a society, right?

      I read the Dragon Tattoo scene on a tram on my way to work and was so flustered that I only read it at home afterwards. (The later two books are much less alarming in that sense, and entirely satisfying.)

  2. Yep, I’m turned off by cruel or grotesque crimes against women particularly if the author has revelled in the detail. Dragon Tattoo was a slight exception for me because it was such an involving plot. There is always the fear that some sicko will find the ideas titillating.

  3. Hi Fiona

    Found your blog because you started following one of my online homes – Fair Dinkum Crime (thanks)- and the notification I got said you’d written a post called women in boxes – I couldn’t resist that title – wondering if it meant what I thought. And it did! I read crime fiction almost exclusively and I agree with you – I’m fed up with the gratuitous or extreme kind of violence being increasingly depicted in my favourite genre, and generally towards women. Though ALEX was I suppose in a category all of its own – I’m not sure where you got up to with it but it did change from being a book about violence towards women – into a book about violence towards everyone – I suppose in that way it was an equal opportunity brutality fest but I was well and truly sick of it all by the end.

    • Hi Bernadette! Fair Dinkum Crime is great – and your point about the cover of The Dying Beach is so true (I hope to do another opinion piece about covers later, but it just seems too easy because they are mostly so terrible.)

      I still haven’t gone past the first third of Alex, though in a completely out of character moment for me I skipped to the end and became thoroughly confused (serves me right) so I may go back to it now that my friend has returned it. I’d actually had a good run of a few books in a row without excessive violence towards women but the new Val McDermid, Cross and Burn, goes right back to that boring psycho killer/rapist trope and now I’m cranky about it all over again. I’m about to read a young adult crime novel so I have very high hopes for this avoiding the problem!

      • I really love the way Val McDermid writes but these days I only read the standalone novels…the Tony Hill ones are just way too brutal for me so I’ll be skipping her new release

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