Wednesday, 18 October 2017

'Tough guy' girls - who are our favourites?

I’m going to be talking about heroines in thrillers this week, particularly the hotshot types, those who are young enough, tough enough and crazy enough to embrace the action full-on. 

This is partly because tomorrow - after a month-long countdown during which I’ve been putting out various whistle-wetters on social media (as you can see a few paras down), the second novel in my Lucy Clayburn series, SHADOWS, will be published … Lucy being an action girl in every sense of the word.

But it’s also because I thought it would be a fun thing to lay out some thoughts regarding MY 10 FAVOURITE FICTIONAL ‘TOUGH GUY GIRLS, and also, even though it is something of a divergence from the main theme, because I’ll be reviewing number three in Phil Rickman’s excellent Merrily Watkins series, A CROWN OF LIGHTS. Merrily is no action hero in the traditional sense, but there’s no question that her criminal investigations are among the most intense and frightening ever put on paper (she also works well for me this month, because the small supernatural element prepares the ground nicely for a more ghostly blog around Halloween).

Anyway, as usual, that review and discussion can be found towards the lower end of today’s post. First, a couple of words about SHADOWS.


When Lucy Clayburn first hit the bookshelves in 2016, in the novel, STRANGERS, it was quite a change of pace for me. I’d been writing the Heck series up until then, in which there was plenty of unadulterated action. When I was asked by my publishers, Avon Books at HarperCollins, to consider a parallel series involving a policewoman, I thought it was an opportunity to come back down to Earth a little, and to give my readers a more procedural-style atmosphere and a lead character, who, while tough as nails – because she’s a blue-collar Manchester lass through and through, and in her spare time wears leathers and rides a Ducati motorbike – deals with day-to-day street crime as a divisional police detective, rather than confronting megalomaniac villains whose evil schemes are mind-boggling in their insanity.

Of course, Lucy quite often gets drawn into much more serious cases, so no one needs to think that we’re content to merely do the mundane in the Clayburn books. For example, in STRANGERS, a good pinch following a random attack on a young woman late at night sees Lucy recruited to work plain clothes in the hunt for a serial killer known as Jill the Ripper (a deranged prostitute, who slices and dices her male clients rather than giving them pleasure). Likewise, in SHADOWS, more good work by Lucy, in this case her pursuit of a cash-machine bandit, sees her seconded to the Manchester Robbery Squad, an elite but rough-and-ready outfit who are hot on the heels of the ruthless Red Headed League.

And then there is the other factor, the thing I like to believe really makes Lucy Clayburn distinctive. The child of a single mum, she never knew her estranged father - until she was 30 years old and well into her police career. It was quite a shock, I guess, for her to learn that he is now a major player in the region’s overarching crime syndicate.

SHADOWS hits the shops on October 19.

Okay, and now onto our second business of the day: my love for action girls extended into a gallery of names and faces hailing from all across the fictional world. Here, in no particular order, are my thoughts and fancies on …


Foxy Brown

Possibly not the way female heroes would prefer to be depicted today, Foxy Brown, as played by the ultra-sexy Pam Grier in the 1974 movie of the same name, nevertheless presented the world with a central female character who didn’t just trade on her looks, but was tough, brave, and had no hesitation in standing up to male violence. The vengeful girlfriend of a murdered government agent, she literally went to war with a major crime syndicate, in the process destroying the heroin scourge that had been devastating her city.

Blaxploitation cinema was always controversial – but with Foxy Brown, it wasn’t just the race question, it was the gender question too. Critics at the time panned it for mistaking extreme violence, nudity and brash sexuality for some kind of feminist message, but it was still massively popular at the box office. On a personal note, I’ve never found Pam Grier anything less than totally watchable – and Foxy Brown is her raunchiest but toughest ever role.

Ellen Ripley

One of only two sci-fi characters to make my final list, Ellen Ripley – as immortalised by Sigourney Weaver – is probably the most immediately recognisable action heroine of all time.

The main protagonist in the first four movies of the Alien franchise (though I personally prefer the first two, as the rest were derivative and repetitive), Ripley first comes to our attention as a flight-officer working deep space cargo missions, which requires her to be a hardass every inch of the way, putting in long hours, subjecting herself to constant discomfort and dealing day-to-day with roughneck crewmen. We also learn that she’s a single mother, who endures all this to provide for her daughter. On top of that, she must battle the horrifying Xenomorph, mostly alone, and yet, often by using brain over brawn, tending to come out on top. A tired but fearless and endlessly resourceful figure, Ripley probably did more than anyone to revolutionise the way women were portrayed in hardcore science fiction. 

Emma Peel

Few female action heroes can seriously have provided hot male fantasy figures on one hand, and on the other won universal applause from women’s groups. But Emma Peel, star of the popular spy series, The Avengers, did just that.

Perhaps superficially, her character didn’t promise much. Named Emma Peel because the show was looking for ‘Man Appeal’, she initially appeared as the kittenish daughter of a prominent industrialist, who spied for a hobby, wore a black catsuit, flirted provocatively with her male counterpart, the older John Steed, and often performed the role of 1960s clothes horse, modelling all the latest fashions. And yet, the character was written so well and played with such bravura by Diana Rigg, who performed her own stunts and fought the bad guys furiously (turning the Bond thing on its head, because it was often she who rescued or defended Steed), that her character is still the main thing most people remember about that legendary show.

Annika Bengtzon

The first Scandi-Noir character to make the list, and a genuine one-off, as, rather than a detective or secret agent or soldier, Annika is a journalist and a responsible wife and mother.

Created by Swedish crime author, Liza Marklund, Annika’s is a hectic world; a nine-till-five crime reporter for Stockholm’s Kvällspressen (‘Evening News’), her career often interweaves with major issues of the day – Marklund has lots to say about current events – but she also pursues particularly heinous cases, such as in The Bomber, when she investigates what appears to be a terrorist attack on Stockholm’s New Olympic Arena, only to find herself on the trail of a maniac with a more personal grudge, in what turns out to be one of the most intense thrillers you’re ever likely to read. A rarity on this list, in that she rarely resolves problems with her fists or a gun, Annika deals with these horrors daily, and then goes home to make tea for her husband and kids – how tough a challenge is that? 

VI ‘Vic’ Warshawksi

Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski is one of the toughest fictional female characters in the crime-fighting pantheon. The creation of US novelist, Sara Paretsky, Vic is a Chicago PI of the 1980s, who, while she specialises in investigating white-collar crime, often finds herself in fist fights and shootouts with gangsters. A throwback to the Hard-Boiled era, she’s a tough-talker too, and very streetwise. But she couldn’t be anything less, having grown up in a bad neighbourhood, run with gangs after her parents died while she was still at school, got involved with ‘60s radicals during her student years, and later trained to be a lawyer, which honed off her rougher edges.

Kathleen Turner’s portrayal in the 1991 movie presented her as a hardcase, but also as stylish and breathlessly feminine, whereas in Paretsky’s original, Vic liked to dress down and was more of a fitness freak than a sex symbol. A fascinating, complex character, if you haven’t checked out VI Warshawki yet, you need to put that right.

Wai Lin

The first (and only) Bond girl to make the cut, Colonel Wai Lin of the Chinese People’s External Security Force appeared in the 1997 movie, Tomorrow Never Dies, played unforgettably by Malaysian-born Hong Kong action star, Michelle Yeoh.

Her long-standing status as a fully-trained movie martial artist had well equipped Yeoh to play a female character who had to authentically hold her own as an undercover agent and all-out warrior in the macho world of 007. But rather than simply going through the balletic, high-kicking motions, Wai Lin tempered all this with a great sense of humour and playfulness, and at the same time mostly employed skill and subterfuge to get the better of her enemies rather than simply karate-chopping her way to victory. She also stood out among the legions of Bond girls because she firmly and even amusedly resisted 007’s increasingly clumsy attempts to seduce her. One of the stand-out heroines of the Bond mythos, as voted for by most fans.  

Lisbeth Salander

Our second Scandi-Noir heroine, and the only Goth girl on the list, Lisbeth Salander played a significant role in the late Stieg Larsson’s highly influential ‘Millennium’ series (kicking off with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). After horrendous early life experiences, during which she was sexually abused, neglected and abandoned, Salander became a permanent outsider. Strange in appearance – androgynous, introverted, and possibly suffering from Asperger syndrome – she swiftly matured into one of the world’s most lethally efficient computer hackers, working as an investigator for a private security firm, but developed other skills as well, constantly able to second guess and outwit her enemies, and becoming a virtual chameleon when it came to changing her look.

Not exactly a hardcase, these abilities nevertheless enabled her to take on and defeat a range of deadly enemies, including serial killers, crooked security agents, and international crime syndicates.


The main female protagonist in 2015’s post-apocalyptic epic, Mad Max: Fury Road, Imperator Furiosa is the second and final sci-fi heroine to make our list, but without doubt one of the most startling. Too often, sci-fi girls have been comic-book-type superhot babes in the Barbarella mode, but there’s nothing of that sort here, despite the role being taken by the beautiful Charlize Theron. Shaven-headed, battle-scarred and fitted with an ugly mechanical arm, Furiosa appears as a military driver for desert warlord, Immortan Joe, who goes rogue when she gets the chance to save five of his unwilling concubines from a fate worse than death, and plays a leading role in all the high-speed battles that follow.

So much of an impact did Furiosa make in this astonishing, breakneck action thriller that even the titular hero dwindled to secondary status. Her unexpected presence in the movie won huge approval worldwide for what was considered a bold feminist statement.

Modesty Blaise

The only entrant on our list with an out-and-out criminal past, and to have commenced her life in a comic strip rather than a novel or a screenplay. Better known today as a mistress of many talents, an international adventurer, a mercenary, a spy, an investigator, an all-round hero for hire who is as deadly as she is desirable, Modesty Blaise, the glamorous but steely creation of Pete O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway back in 1963, nevertheless has a backstory so harrowing that it’s a miracle she emerged from it sane, let alone as a made-to-measure heroine.

The child survivor of a displaced persons camp at the end of World War II, she wandered the devastated world at first as a nameless refugee, getting involved in more and more scrapes, and learning to survive the hard way, during which process she acquired her name and many rare skills (a lot of which were initially used in crime). Too big a character to live forever in comics, it was no surprise that in due course she made her way into novels, short stories and finally the movies (three to date).

Kinsey Millhone

Another fictional heroine – the creation of top US writer, Sue Grafton – who somehow muddled her way into law-enforcement, following what might in real life have seemed an unlikely path.

Though born of wealthy Californian parents, Kinsey learned about life and death the hard way, when, as a child, she was trapped for hours in the same car wreck that killed her mother and father. Raised from that point on by an eccentric older aunt, she became a dopehead delinquent at university, but in due course found her way onto the Santa Teresa police department, where she learned basic detective-work, before finally branching out as a PI and taking on a succession of tougher-than-tough cases, capturing murderers, protecting the innocent and only evading the vengeance of local gangsters by the skin of her teeth. A smart cookie and street-tough rather than a slinky glamour-puss, she went on to star in Grafton’s much-celebrated Alphabet Mysteries.


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

by Phil Rickman (2011)

When a young pagan couple, Robin and Betty Thorogood, acquire an old farmhouse in rural New Hindwell, they are delighted to discover the relic of an abandoned Christian chapel in the grounds. Immediately, they launch plans to perform rituals there and to reclaim the ancient site for the ‘old religion’ by celebrating the traditional Celtic feast of Imbolc.

But of course, it isn’t going to be that simple.

To start with, Betty Thorogood – the more tuned-in of the two – senses a dark presence in the ruin and an air of foreboding in the encircling Radnor Valley. If this doesn’t worry her enough, the couple’s plans arouse the wrath of Reverend Nick Ellis, the local evangelical minister, who has brought a hellfire message to the UK from his former parish in the American South. Despite Betty’s charm and beauty, Ellis, a man with great charisma but an increasingly sinister fundamentalist agenda, manages to stir up intense local feeling against the duo – to the point where mob violence soon threatens.

Merrily Watkins, local vicar and Diocesan Deliverance Officer, a woman very experienced in tackling the occult, is sent to keep a watch on the volatile situation. But it soon becomes apparent that this is a vastly more complex and frightening problem than even she anticipated. To start with, there are several other bizarre, possibly interconnected issues in New Hindwell: eccentric lawyer JW Weal can’t seem to let go of his recently deceased wife and may well have used nefarious, if not downright evil, methods to hang onto her soul, while at the same time Merrily is disturbed by the rumour that a circle of medieval churches dedicated to St. Michael, originally built to contain a dragon lurking in Radnor Forest, may actually have been located there to entrap a demonic entity.

Above all though, the main threat to peace in this small community stems from the Rev. Ellis, who is much more than just a zealous preacher. Merrily soon comes to doubt his motives and even his beliefs, and finds his followers – who include several local people of note, including the fearsome councillor’s wife, Judith Prosser – a particularly menacing bunch, whose strict loyalty to each other may be concealing a wealth of sins, including murder. In fact, so worried is she by this gathering storm, that she finds herself siding with the pagan newcomers, though they themselves don’t make this easy for her when a whole bunch of them turns up, determined to desecrate the ancient Christian site with their Imbolc rites …

A Crown of Lights is the third outing in the hugely popular Merrily Watkins series, and for my money one of the best. Not that I don’t have a couple of reservations about it.

One key issue I have with the Watkins stories overall is the central heroine’s apparent lack of conviction. It can’t be easy for her; the loss of her husband while she was still young and the hostility she seems to face at almost every turn from her know-all teenage daughter, Jane, must leave her feeling pretty friendless at times. But even so, Merrily, while not exactly beset with doubts about her faith, is hardly the sort of muscular Christian you’d normally expect to occupy the role of exorcist. She doesn’t seem to like anything about her own Church, and nor is she easily convinced that supernatural forces exist (despite much evidence to the contrary in this series).

That said, these apparent weaknesses work in her favour in this particular outing, as the powers soon ranged against her – from all sides, both pagan and Christian – leave her more embattled than we’ve ever seen before, which quickly wins her over to the readers. You always tend to root for the underdog, especially if she gets bullied as often as Merrily does – one scene in particular, when she is unwillingly drawn into a live TV debate with a bunch of militant witches under the control of arch manipulator Ned Bain, has you on her side in no uncertain terms.

Less easy to reconcile is the other issue, which is Phil Rickman’s general reluctance to plunge fully into the world of the weird. There are several ghostly and demonic elements in A Crown of Lights, though it is essentially a clever and absorbing murder mystery, so they remain on the periphery. This is a personal viewpoint of course, but while this subtle combo of thriller and chiller has worked for some, I found the many signposts to the arcane – the ancient churches, the legends, the folklore, the prehistoric monuments with which the wild landscape is littered, the hints of a devilish presence, etc – disappointing, as there is no real fulfilment of that particular promise.   

However, this is still an excellent read.

To start with, the incendiary atmosphere in the village is hugely well handled. You wouldn’t normally expect the wintry Welsh Marches to play host to a furious war of words between fanatical religious groups, but it happens here in completely convincing fashion, the hostility simmering throughout the book until the threat of violence feels so real that you can’t help but shudder – there is surely nothing more frightening in both fiction and non-fiction than lynch-law.

It also helps to drive the narrative along that it’s such a multi-stranded mystery, which you simply have to get to the bottom of. A Crown of Lights is an intricate tale, at times almost overwhelmingly so, but it’s massively intriguing – and the reader can rest assured that it all gets tied up neatly at the end.

As always with Phil Rickman’s books, the writing is of the highest order. The gorgeous rural region is beautifully realised, its ancientness and mystery (my earlier comments notwithstanding) evoked in loving fashion. By the same token, the book is a mastery of research. The complex mythology of the Marches is brought vividly to life, while the pagan belief system is richly detailed and made to feel like so much more than silly superstition.

Most interesting of all, though, is the clash of cultures.

Paganism is portrayed as a free-spirited faith, only loosely based on genuine pre-Christian beliefs but unfettered by modernism, unlike Merrily’s ‘rational’ brand of 21st century Christianity in which the exorcist is expected to know as much about psychiatry as doctrine. And this is another key aspect of the book: the war between the old and the new – some of which rages inside Merrily, and between her vision of a kinder Christianity and Nick Ellis’s fire and brimstone, but also out in the wider village community of New Hindwell, which, though it’s hardly the back of beyond, is beset with tradition and was never likely to welcome changes enforced on it by outsiders.    

A compelling, thought-provoking novel, very, very readable and highly recommended for lovers of both mystery and mysticism.

As usual – purely for fun, you understand – here are my personal selections for who should play the leads if A Crown of Lights ever makes it to the movies or TV. Thanks to that fine writer, Stephen Volk, Merrily Watkins has already bestridden our television screens in Midwinter of the Spirit, but that was then and this is now, and only a couple of those characters play a role in Crown, so, with the exception of Sally Messham, this is a different cast:

Merrily Watkins – Rachel Weisz
Nick Ellis – Billy Bob Thornton
Judith Prosser – Catherine Zeta-Jones
Ned Bain – Hugo Weaving
Jane Watkins – Sally Messham
Betty Thorogood – Sophie Cookson
Robin Thorogood – Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
JW Weal – Robert Pugh

(I know, I know … this would be an expensive line-up, but in my imagination I have limitless funds, so yah!)

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