Women In Crime Novels: 'Terrible Cliches'

In the pages of crime novels, women are often seriously stereotyped. Christopher Rice explains the four most common tropes that crime novelists fall into when it comes to women, and how he has tried to avoid cliched female characters in his own writing.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Time was female characters in a crime novel were all secretaries, socialites and victims. We've come a long way, or have we? Crime novelist Christopher Rice argues that even modern crime stories feature a few standardized female roles that really ought to be retired. He wrote about them for the Daily Beast and joins us in just a moment.

So which character would you like to relegate to the remainder bins of history; the femme fatale, the goody two-shoes, the hot murderous? Call us, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Christopher Rice's most recent novel is called "The Moonlit Earth." And he joins us today from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. Nice to have you with us.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER RICE (Author, "The Moonlit Earth"): Thank you, Neal. It's good to be here.

CONAN: And we have to say that at least the characters you're talking about are still alive. A lot of female characters are found on page one in a pool of blood.

Mr. RICE: Right, absolutely, and they're a victim. I mean, you might also want to add to my bio that I'm probably in a lot of trouble with my male colleagues in the genre for issuing a broadside against them in order to promote my new novel, "The Moonlit Earth." But, you know, I was focused on writing a new book about a female protagonist who was - who I wanted to be smart, resourceful and none of these cliches that I talked about in the essay.

So for me, the essay was sort of like setting up traffic cones and caution tape around the Do Not Enter areas of female character building.

CONAN: And so, were these characters that you considered but rejected?

Mr. RICE: These were characters - to some degree. I think the risk that I was running with my book "The Moonlit Earth" is it was about a young woman who was discovering some secrets about her family. And I wanted her to be assertive and reactive and I didn't want her to fall into the traps that sort of drive these other characters, which is that they're essentially props that oftentimes male writers just sort of pull through pre-constructed stories without ever really developing.

But I think the one at the top of the list, the one that I just cannot stand is the cop's wife who doesn't understand the demands of the job.

CONAN: Ah.

Mr. RICE: I mean, if there is anything I could do to just chase this woman out of every book and out of every TV episode, she is - and not only is she insulting to women, she's insulting to the audience because we're essentially being asked to believe that she's the one woman on the planet who never saw a TV show about how difficult it is to be married to a cop.

And as her husband is swallowing through these, you know, cases of incredible import, sometimes global conspiracies, she's standing on the front steps of their new house going, you missed the Easter egg hunt, honey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICE: I mean, are we really supposed to have any sympathy for this woman at all? Enough of her. Enough.

CONAN: Another you say should be dumped forever, the babe assassin.

Mr. RICE: Well, I'm going to walk that one back just a little bit, because I think when the babe assassin is done right, when she's deepened a little bit, she can come off as a lot of fun. The problem is, she's very often not done right. She is the product of graphic novels. She has ninja-like abilities that are never quite explained. And, you know, on the surface she seems like an attempt at gender equality because she's doing all these horrible, sadistic things to snitches and to other criminals that men can do just as well. But if we never get a real explanation for who she is, how she got that way, she just ends up being a cardboard character.

CONAN: Well, we think of "La Femme Nikita," in which case I thought it was done pretty well.

Mr. RICE: Absolutely, because the story there was how this character became this character, you know. And I think you can take probably any of these stereotypes and if you really commit to developing an entire narrative arc around their origin, then you can do something successfully.

CONAN: The ice queen bureaucrat.

Mr. RICE: Oh, she is a cancer. Shes just - because she pops up in a lot of different forms. Sometimes she's the cop who is, you know, dotting her I's and crossing her T's, and sometimes she's the, you know, the CIA analyst who lives only in the bowels of the intelligence labs and emerges only to annoy the cavalier male main character and deliver huge dollops of exposition and back story, you know.

CONAN: Yes. Again, that was what - I was interested in your analysis of it. She's - her only purpose in the plot is to provide exposition, to explain what's going on here.

Mr. RICE: Exposition and cheap opposition to what the hero wants to do.

CONAN: Ah.

Mr. RICE: Yeah.

CONAN: You're not obeying strictures 87-8.

Mr. RICE: Absolutely. But you know, like, that type of character, the sort of downer ice queen is something that we see in a lot of movies and romantic comedies. The problem with her when she appears primarily in procedural crime novels is that there's something she offers that's essential to actually solving the mystery, so the hero can never give her the hair letting down session the writer apparently believes she deserves so richly.

CONAN: There are a fair number of males who also perform this function, and you think of Ecklie, the boss on "CSI." I mean, he's the ice queen, but he's not a queen.

Mr. RICE: Absolutely. And I think, you know, the ice queen is probably a distant cousin to the shouting at the top of his lungs, you know, supervisor or superior officer who's supposed to, you know, provide the 11th hour obstacle to the hero's brilliant plan. So there are all sorts of variations of this character. I think where this one becomes particularly troublesome in the area of gender is when she's simply there for the male characters to poke fun at her the way they would poke fun at their sixth grade math teacher.

CONAN: We're talking with Christopher Rice. His most recent book is "The Moonlit Earth." And we're talking about the female tropes in a lot of modern crime stories. Yes, we've gone - we're talking about the victims too, but if you have a character type that you would like to see less of in the future, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll get some callers on the line in just a moment, but I wanted to ask you about one more in your litany of characters who ought to be approached with great caution, shall we say.

Mr. RICE: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: The token lesbian cop.

Mr. RICE: Well, this was the hard one for me to approach in this essay because I am an openly gay writer, I guess, as opposed to a half-open gay writer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICE: I think my books appeal to everyone. And I've done some activism on behalf of my community. But the problem with the token lesbian cop is that she's written almost entirely from a male perspective. And, you know, as soon as she is introduced or as soon as she has her sort of coming out moment, which is usually designed to let the hero look as cool and P.C. as the writer would like him to appear, she basically becomes a man with lady parts. And she raises no objection when the men around her, you know, basically, you know, make crude comments about women. And to that I'd say I have never met a lesbian who doesn't have at least some strong opinions about the objectification of women, and I defy those writers to go out and find one in reality.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We'll start with Cliff. And Cliff is with us from Fort Mill in South Carolina.

CLIFF (Caller): Thank you for taking my call, Neal. I'm a big fan.

CONAN: Thank you.

CLIFF: I was just curious about your guest's thoughts on a character in a similar novel, Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake.

Mr. RICE: I have not read Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake novels, unfortunately. But I, you know, what I - obviously the elephant in the room here is that my mother is Anne Rice and my understanding of the Anita Blake novels is that they sort of expand the vampire sort of supernatural mythology in a certain direction and they place the female in a sort of heroic role. But beyond that, I can't really say. Maybe there are some strains of the babe assassin.

But I think it gets back to what Neal and I were talking about earlier. If these are real, you can take any of these four stereotypes. And if you put them at the center of the story and if you commit yourself to developing them and giving them origins and plausibility, I think you can do something successfully, and maybe that's what the Anita Blake novels are. But again, I'm sorry, I haven't read them.

CONAN: Could you briefly, Cliff, describe Anita Blake for us?

CLIFF: Well, she's actually a combination of the babe assassin and the last example, the lesbian cop, because she's - she, in a lot of ways, has become the male with female parts at - it's highly sexualized because it's a vampire novel in that - sort of that genre.

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. RICE: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: All right.

CLIFF: It was interesting because your guest, when he spoke about all the different four types to avoid, she kind of picks and chooses areas from each of them and is almost...

CONAN: Hmm.

CLIFF: ...all of them together.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, Cliff. Appreciate it.

CLIFF: Thank you. Have a good one.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Alice(ph) in Boston. Della Street was smarter than Paul Drake but would still stuck back at the office typing up the endless briefs of Perry Mason. Get Della out on the street, as she was the quintessential secretary.

Let's see if we can get - this is Ruby. And Ruby is with us from San Francisco.

RUBY (Caller): Hi. How you doing?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

RUBY: I just wanted to comment on the phenomenon that I see, which is that the female characters serve as a counterpart to or an opposition to the code, the hero code of the detective and the morale of the detective, or the morals.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

RUBY: And so they end up playing kind of a devil (unintelligible) role and all they're doing is reinforcing how morally steadfast the main character is. And he's bound and kind of constantly challenging his boundaries. And it just always - it makes women look like, you know, that deep, dark devilish character, no matter who they are, whether the secretary who's constantly trying to get the attention of the detective in a romantic way or the femme fatale.

CONAN: Nevertheless, there are some characters who also, I guess, metaphorically put their handkerchiefs into the sleeve of the Dark Knight detective of the mean streets.

RUBY: Right. Right.

CONAN: He's their champion. Often, in private eye novels, they're the customer, the client.

RUBY: Right, absolutely. And that it's mostly a way to reinforce the detective who, like in Chandler and Hammett, are especially - their morals really aren't that strong, but they look strong in comparison to these women because they don't - there's no median between emotion and, what, thought, intellect, detective work...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

RUBY: ...no median place. The femme fatale is total emotion and deception and confusion, and then there's the detective who's cold and hard, even that he really isn't.

CONAN: A little soft inside, because he has to slug himself to sleep with a bottle.

RUBY: Yeah, exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: All right, Ruby, thanks very much. I assume, Christopher Rice, you've done the homework, all the Hammett and Chandler novels?

Mr. RICE: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I have to say, I'm most fund of Ross Macdonald. And I make the speech often when I go out to promote my books. I feel like Ross Macdonald, who is probably the lesser known of those three, being Chandler, Hammett and Macdonald, has probably been the most influential on some of the successful contemporary mystery writers that we have - Jonathan Kellerman; Sue Grafton, even uses Santa Teresa as a sort of alternate name for Santa Barbara in that area in her books, which is what Macdonald did in his Archer novels. And he was a softer, gentler take on all of this. You know, Macdonald introduced psychological layering into his books, which sort of separated them from just the usual sort of tough guy universe that was prevailing in Hammett's work.

CONAN: I think we also need to remember, James M. Cain, who...

Mr. RICE: Oh, yeah.

CONAN: ...covered much of the same ground with a broader palate, I think, than just the crime noir. Anyway, we're talking with Christopher Rice about tropes of female characters in modern crime stories. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's join Sarah(ph). Sarah with us from Sacramento.

SARAH (Caller): Good afternoon. How are you?

CONAN: I'm good.

SARAH: I'm so excited to get through.

CONAN: Well, we're excited to have you, Sarah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SARAH: I had been speaking with your screener about the Alex Delaware series by Jonathan Kellerman...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

SARAH: ...and his wife, Faye Kellerman's series, Peter Decker. And I just believe how - I just love how balanced they are and how we see the progression of the relationships that seem real.

CONAN: So you admire the way they handle their female characters.

SARAH: Yes. Yeah. I do. Particularly the wife or the girlfriend of the Alex Kellerman - I'm sorry, the Alex Delaware character.

CONAN: Right.

SARAH: And she has her own life. She builds guitars. She is well-known for - I mean, she's world known for her guitar (unintelligible) skills and she has her own life. But she loves him and adores him and they argue, but they come back together. She seems to understand where he's coming from. And as far as a same-sex relationship, his - the partner for Alex Delaware is a gay cop. We've seen the progression. I know it's not a female, but...

CONAN: Yeah.

SARAH: ...we've seen the progression of how the force, the LAPD, has either shunned him and then finally, you know, as the years go on, accepted him and respected him. So it's very well-balanced.

CONAN: I wonder if Jonathan Kellerman is among those who called you, Christopher Rice, to say, you're blowing the whistle on...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICE: Well, I haven't gotten any calls quite yet. But Jonathan Kellerman, and particularly what he did with the character of Milo Sturgis, which is the gay detective we were just talking about, that was an enormous contribution to the genre. It was really groundbreaking and it was really brave. And I think it cleared the way for other gay characters, like the gay character we recently saw on "Southland," which I think has been one of the finest police shows on TV in some time.

CONAN: Let's get Peter with us. Peter with us calling from Hood River in Oregon.

PETER (Caller): Yeah. Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

PETER: Thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead.

PETER: Well, my comment is kind of switching mediums a little bit to TV. My favorite TV show of all time is a crime show from the '90s called "Millennium." And it's specifically awesome to me because it breaks so many of the stereotypes, you know? But at the same time, you know, even though it's such an amazing show, and the critics love it, it got cancelled after three seasons.

CONAN: Because viewers didn't necessarily love it.

PETER: Yeah. Pretty much. And I just wanted to see what...

CONAN: Well, it's interesting, Christopher Rice, you were just talking about "Southland," which suffered a similar fate, though it's now, Lazarus-like, risen again on cable.

PETER: Right.

Mr. RICE: Yes. It was picked up by TNT and they ran a sort of, I guess, a shortened season of it, which just ended a few weeks ago. And so there are those opportunities there. But I also think - I didn't watch the entire run of "Millennium," but I did watch a few episodes. And was there not a genre-bending aspect to it as well? Weren't there elements of the supernatural mixed in with the police procedural?

PETER: There were. There were. But especially, if you look at the first season, you know, just the fact that the main character is in his 50s rather than in his early 30s...

Mr. RICE: Sure.

CONAN: We have to remember that just breaking the mold doesn't necessarily make it good. "Cop Rock" broke the mold too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICE: That's very true. I think risk just for the sake of risk is never a recipe for success. I think what we're talking about - what the callers all seem to have in common are characters that have a richness to them and that are depicted as being in genuine relationships with other characters rather than foils for other characters. I mean, we talked about the femme fatale as just this device to present temptation to the stoic detective. But you know, we're talking about - and it's not always a romantic relationship as well. It's about characters actually learning and growing with one another. And the potential is really there over at the series novels, like Jonathan Kellerman and Faye Kellerman, to really develop those characters rather deeply, more so than you have in an hour of television.

CONAN: All right. Peter, thanks very much.

PETER: Yeah. Thank you.

CONAN: Have we come around full circle? Would at this point a secretary, if anybody has any of those anymore, would that break the mold?

Mr. RICE: No. I don't think so. I think now the conversation needs to be about what smart women are allowed to do when they're at the center of the story. I think one of the real victories in Patricia Cornwell's novels was that Kay Scarpetta, excuse me, was allowed to have a rather expansive romantic life and still maintain her sort of heroic professional abilities, you know? And I think right now we're looking - you know, one of the things I wanted to do with the "The Moonlit Earth" is it was going to have a smart female heroine but she wasn't going to be a forensic psychologist or a psychiatrist or a medical professional.

You know, so it's like letting those types of characters branch out into other fields and other areas of living, for lack of a better phrase.

CONAN: Well, as we just mentioned, "The Moonlit Earth" is the most recent of Christopher Rice's novels. And he's with us today from NPR West in Culver City, California. You can find a link to his article in the Daily Beast titled "Why Crime Novelists Don't Get Women" on our website at npr.org. And Christopher Rice, thanks very much. Good luck with the book.

Mr. RICE: Thanks for having me, Neal.

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