Thursday, 8 March 2018

Cruel, savage - and that's only the women

I came into possession of an intriguing stat this last week, which has provoked today’s main line of thought. 

In short, I’ll be considering the differences, if there are any, between the sexes when it comes to both reading crime/thriller fiction and writing it. In addition today, because it’s very pertinent to that discussion, I’ll be reviewing and discussing in my usual microscopic detail, Danielle Ramsay’s bone-chilling murder mystery, THE LAST CUT.

As always, you’ll find that review at the lower end of today’s blog. If that’s all you’re here for, be my guest and zoom on down to the bottom to check it out. But if you’ve got a few minutes to spare first, perhaps you’d like to hear my views and thoughts on the battle of the sexes in crime fiction – though, as I’ve already hinted, and as I will now endeavour to explain, I don’t actually think there is one.

It all started when I was advised this week that 66% of my crime/thriller readership is male.

Now, I’m not entirely sure how those responsible arrive at these figures, but I must assume they know what they are doing and that it’s more than just an informed guess. In which case, I’m actually bucking the national trend, because in the UK at least, the audience for crime/thriller fiction is weighed 60/40 in favour of females.

Am I a one-off, then? Am I an aberration?

It may be explainable by my Mark Heckenburg novels being slightly more action-led than the average British police procedural, and if word of that has got out, more male readers might have plumped for Heck than would be the norm. But more likely, I think, the real answer lies in that old adage: there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.

I have no doubt that certain genres appeal more to certain genders. 
Conventional wisdom holds that the demise of horror novel writing in the UK in the last 30 years is down to a dwindling readership, which, in its turn, can be put down to young males – who used to be voracious for that kind of fiction – being more interested now in playing computer games (like Silent Hill, above right). Likewise, romance, which is still a hugely saleable commodity, is generally regarded as being written and purchased mainly by women (though I’m sure that neither of these ‘facts’ are applicable across the board).

In contrast, crime and thriller fiction is thought to occupy a kind of middle-ground, and I’m not entirely sure why. 

Apparently, there are some distinctions within that small central zone, with spy novels, for example – the domain of classic names like John le Carré, Len Deighton and Ian Fleming, and current practitioners like John Lawton, Philip Kerr and Mick Herron (left) – selling more to men, along with military actioners of the sort produced by Chris Ryan, Andy McNab, Duncan Falconer and Lee Child

However, murder mysteries and police novels, as written by such modern mistresses of menace as Ann Cleeves (right), Elly Griffiths, Kate Ellis and Mari Hannah are allegedly bought more by women.

You may ask yourself why (as I have done several times). Is this because female readers (and writers) are put off by overt violence more than their male counterparts? Or is it simply that, for females, reading is a more cerebral exercise, with the emphasis on solving a puzzle, than it is a blood-pumping physical experience in which brawn and gunfire ultimately triumph.

If I was to say yes to all that, I fear I’d be reinforcing some pretty old-fashioned stereotypes, and it’s not something I’d believe anyway … because my personal experience in this field is entirely different.

When I developed the idea for my first Heck novel, STALKERS (at that early stage known as THE NICE GUYS CLUB), various advisers expressed strong concern about its potential highly disturbing content. You see, STALKERS is all about a rape-club, which is operated by a secretive crime syndicate who charge their male clients huge amounts of money, in return for which they will secure any female victim of choice, provide a secure location in which the attack can occur, and then afterwards dispose of the evidence, including the victim.

I too thought it was a disturbing concept. In fact, when I first hatched the idea, I thought it would only work in a horror context. At first glance at least, it seemed far too strong for a police thriller. Though after some discussions with my other half, Cathy, we eventually concluded that it wouldn’t be if I was to write it – not exactly delicately, but as non-gratuitously as possible, approaching it mainly from the angle of the police investigation. Even then, certain people I spoke to were wary because, I was told, the majority of crime readers in the UK are female, as are the bulk of the editors in the major publishing houses.

Nevertheless, the novel was acquired and published by Avon, an imprint at HarperCollins, which again is staffed primarily by women (who actually asked me to up the violence and menace!), and went on to become a best-seller, with plenty of reviews, many by female readers, praising how grim and frightening they found it.

Now, the reality is that you don’t have to look very far to find lots more evidence of this. We have some great male crime/thriller novelists in the UK, who rarely pull their punches when it comes to violence, gore and generally horrifying concepts, Peter James, Stuart MacBride, James Carol and Mark Billingham, to name but a few.   

But the first ladies of British crime are no strangers themselves to merciless subject-matter.

We’re all pretty familiar with Val McDermid’s famous Tony Hill novels, in which a variety of fiendish crimes are perpetrated by various twisted maniacs against the run-down backdrop of the post-industrial Northeast. Also in the Northeast, but in Newcastle rather than Bradfield, Danielle Ramsay (left, also featured in today’s Thrillers, Chillers, Shockers and Killers) has recently unleashed an equally gruesome and traumatic new series in the DS Harri Jacobs books.

Across the country in Manchester, meanwhile, local lass Marnie Riches (right) explores the seamiest sides of gangland, never holding back on its grit and profanity. Further north in Edinburgh, Helen Fields repeately pitches her French-born cop, Luc Callanach, into an environment more brutally hostile than any he’s experienced before (and that’s only the weather – sorry, Helen!); but joking aside, cruel and savage murders aren’t the only horror he has to contend with.

There are plenty more of this ilk, and it’s not just here in the UK. Over in the States, Tess Gerritson, a medical doctor no less, tells stories so blood-curdling and so graphically gory that you’ll think you’ve strayed into a horror novel. Karin Slaughter notoriously doesn’t restrain the grue either – her concepts are regularly described as ‘horrific’. While Aussie author, LA Larkin (left), creates international, globe-trotting thrillers that are every bit as action-packed as the stories spun by our favourite ex-SAS writers (they also contain plenty of tech – another so-called male strength), and Iceland’s Yrsa Sigurdardottir has no qualms about threading her plots with supernatural terror.

So come on, guys … where does that leave me with this conundrum about 66% of my readership comprising men when the evidence would suggest that it’s the women (yep, both the writers and the readers) who are the real gorehounds?

The only solution you can realistically come to is that figures can be misleading (especially those on which huge assumptions are so often made) and that in truth … we’re all as barmy as each other.


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 Danielle Ramsay (2017)

DS Harri Jacobs is a cop on the edge.

Okay, lots of police fiction likes to adopt that attitude, but in this case, author Danielle Ramsay really means it. Her central character has been through an ordeal the likes of which few people would recover from. A Newcastle girl by origin, she joined the Metropolitan Police in London, during the course of which service she was attacked and raped with such ferocity that she almost died. Before abandoning her broken body, her anonymous assailant made things even worse by promising her that one day he’d return and finish the job.

As part of her effort to get over this nightmare – not least because, somewhat outlandishly, she suspected that one of her London colleagues, DI Mac O’Connor, was the culprit – Harri transferred to Newcastle, feeling more at home in familiar surroundings. But even then – and this is where the novel actually starts, she is increasingly frightened and paranoid. It hardly seems likely that her attacker will follow her north, but while Harri is a strong, tough character, she is deeply damaged psychologically, and finds that she can’t trust anyone. Not only that, she keeps her new colleagues at arm’s length. In the case of wideboy DC Robertson, it’s perhaps understandable, because he’s a total throwback, but DI Tony Douglas is one of the good guys, and yet Harri is equally cool with him. And after all that, at the end of each trying day, she goes back home to an upper apartment in an otherwise empty industrial building, where she barricades herself in, so increasingly unnerved by the all-encompassing darkness that she sits with her back to the door and a baseball bat in her hand.

Of course, none of this self-imposed isolation really prepares her for the ultra-difficult days that lie just ahead.

A series of horrific crimes commences, when a young woman is found murdered and ghoulishly disfigured. We, the readers, know who is responsible; we don’t know his identity, but we’ve seen him at work in his homemade surgical lab, where he coldly, clinically, crudely, and in eerie, concentrated silence, performs torturous reconstruction on helpless and brutalised female captives. We realise, without needing to be told, that the body already discovered will only be the first of many.

All of this would be difficult enough for the cops to deal with, but Harri’s own troubles are about to get a whole lot worse. Not only has the first victim been left at a deposition site which has personal meaning for her, but she then becomes the recipient of information connecting this latest atrocity to the attack that she herself suffered (including, very alarmingly, photographic images). Convinced that it’s the same perpetrator finally coming back for Round Two, Harri knows that if she was to hand this new intel to her bosses, she’d immediately be taken off the case – and she cannot stand that thought. She’s only just regained control of her life, and to lose it again, so soon – to the same heinous villain – would be more than she could bear.

And so begins one of the most difficult enquiries that any police officer, fictional or otherwise, has ever embarked on, the killer behaving ever more monstrously, Harri agonised with guilt about withholding key evidence from the rest of the team, but determined to stay on the case, because unless she is the one to take this fiend down, she knows that she’ll never have peace, and will never be able to live with herself …

In the modern era, there is an increasingly thin line between crime fiction and horror, and in The Last Cut, Danielle Ramsey crosses it several times. Make no mistake, this story centres around a truly horrific concept.

Conceive, if you can, of a serial killer who abducts his victims, straps them down in the dark and the cold, and then literally goes to work on them over a period of days, if not longer, gradually transforming them through non-anaesthetised surgery into a completely different kind of creature. Scalpels, needles and acid are all applied liberally. He even replaces their eyes with glass baubles, so that in the end only featureless monstrosities remain.

Danielle Ramsay doesn’t lay it on hard in terms of obscene detail, but again, it’s the bone-chilling concept. If you tried to put that idea alone into a movie, it would be 18-rated for sure.

The horror movie atmosphere doesn’t end there, either. The Last Cut isn’t just about a deranged killer and his nightmarish MO. It’s also about the state of heroine, Harri Jacobs’s mind. This is without doubt one of the most effectively traumatised lead-characters I’ve encountered in a crime novel to date. Primarily, that’s because it’s not in the reader’s face, but it’s there nevertheless, lurking constantly in the background.

Harri, as we’re told from the outset, it a rape survivor. Though, in many ways, she hasn’t survived at all. Her intense conviction that the madman who attacked her is not only still out there, but still stalking her, and even murdering other women in the most elaborate, grotesque ways in order to get at her, clouds her thinking to the point where she withholds essential info from her superiors, misjudges fellow officers (almost fatally at one point), and is driven to live like a recluse in a semi-derelict former factory with only a single, heavy-duty lift connecting her residence to the rest of the world.

This excellent latter device is itself hugely effective in creating a sense of fear and alienation. Harri is a lonely soul even during the day, when she’s on duty. She is so convinced that indifference to her plight lurks on all sides that she takes desperate, dangerous measures to ensure that she is kept on the case, which segregates her massively. But at nighttime, this sense of paranoia literally takes physical form. She blockades herself into this terrible old building, which creates a siege mentality, thanks to which she gets almost no rest.

The mere thought of this is blood-curdling. How would you react if, in the darkest part of the night, you heard movement on the other supposedly empty floors? How would you respond if you suddenly heard the lift ascending in the early hours of the morning – and indeed how does Harri respond?, because yes, you guessed it, that’s exactly what happens.  

This is all tremendously effective in creating a dark, ultra-grim police novel.

The authentic Newcastle setting is desolate and gloomy, and again in horror fiction fashion, maintains a subtle but ghostly aura. We’re so focussed on the tight, tense interplay of the central characters that we see very little of the cty’s day-to-day life or its general population (aside from those among them who die so horribly – one gruesome event on the Tyne Bridge lingers long in the memory), so the whole of Tyneside is there, but mostly as a spectral backdrop.

Danielle Ramsay obviously loves her native Northeast, but this is a stark portrayal of the difficulties faced by police teams in the heart of an unfeeling city, especially when they are confronted by particularly violent crimes. It also reminds us that police officers themselves are only human, and likely to be damaged by many of the things they see and do – and quite often are not always the best judges of their own situations.

An intense, brooding psycho-thriller, gritty and dark as hell, and built around a disturbing but intriguing mystery. You can’t afford to miss it.

As I say, I would love to see The Last Cut get the film or TV treatment, even if it could never be sceened after 9pm (not that that would worry me). On the off-chance it will happen, and I so hope it does, here are my picks for the leads: 

DS Harri Jacobs – Emily Beecham
DI Tony Douglas – Robert Glenister
DI Aaron Bradley – William Moseley
DI Mac O’Connor – Christopher Fulford
DC Robertson – Anthony Flanagan

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