A Genre’s Woman Problem | Mystery BackTalk, December 2013

An award-winning author decries crime fiction’s violent misogyny


Hilary Davidson

Talking about novelistic violence crossing the line into torture porn is a tricky business, in part because it sounds too much like a call for censorship. At Bouchercon (Anthony Boucher Memorial World Mystery Convention) this year in Albany, NY, I was on a panel about noir fiction when the question came up. Our moderator, Reed Farrel Coleman, said he’d noticed a trend toward violent misogyny and asked each panelist to weigh in. I took a very deep breath before answering. For the record, I have no interest in banning books. If it turns a person on to read about women being boiled alive, that’s his or her business. But when a number of crime fiction authors—many of whom are women—appear to be in a competition to hack female characters to pieces in the most vicious ways possible, that suggests crime fiction has a problem.

Sadistic violence on the page has been on the rise for some time. I don’t think it’s fair to pin it on one book, but in my mind, there’s a divide between crime novels published before 1988 and those that came after. That was the year Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs came out. That title was brutal, but its violence was essential to the psychological underpinning of the book and to the development of its characters. Its massive success inspired imitators, but many of those seemed less concerned with psychology than splatter. There was an escalation of torture described in painstaking detail. Lately, I feel like I’m watching an arms race: once the major players have displayed the most horrible weapons in their arsenals, there’s nothing to do but up the sociopathic slasher ante—and that drags crime fiction down.

Violence as Entertainment

There’s unquestionably a place for brutality in crime fiction. Part of the dark beauty of the genre is that it explores the consequences of violence, the way it can twist a soul and the fallout it leaves for the next generation. What turns my stomach is violence as entertainment. The victims, so often beautiful women, may be mutilated, raped, and repeatedly tortured in myriad ways that do nothing to advance the story or develop character. Reading these scenes is not unlike having a snuff film described in all its lurid, stultifying detail.

I’m aware that the erotic thrill of an attractive dead woman—the Death and the Maiden trope—is nothing new. Renaissance artists painted eerily seductive works of Death clutching a lovely young woman. It’s a truism in publishing that gorgeous female victims sell books—so much so that some publishers have been known to slap an image of a dead woman on the cover of a book with no female victim.

Too often, these doomed beauties aren’t really characters at all, just flimsy creatures whose only purpose is to suffer. They are props to show how vile the villain really is (as if the audience couldn’t figure that out). They exist as an explanation for the hero’s desire for vengeance: the greater the maiden’s ordeal, the greater the justification for the hero’s rage. Her anguish provides the impetus for his action, but she is nothing but a sacrifice, and the author who lovingly lays out her graphic torture and death is trying to make the audience squirm with hollow delight. On the writer’s part, this is simply a lazy way to horrify the reader. At heart, it’s pure misogyny.

Using Torture Porn To Sell Books

Crime fiction has had a fraught relationship with women in the past. The hard-boiled, hackneyed 1940s concept of a femme fatale is as old as Eve: soulless temptresses who manipulate men and precipitate their falls. These ladies are bad because women are born bad. But the torture porn that’s become so common today desensitizes audiences to violence. Once a writer manages to shock, the next has to aim so much lower to hit the spot.

At its best, crime fiction holds up a mirror to society, stripping away the lies we tell ourselves. It reminds us of the yawning chasm between haves and have-nots. It speaks to the empty parts of our souls, whispering of the things we do to fill our sense of aching need. It chips away at smooth, measured facades, shining a light on the rot and misery lurking just under the surface. I’ve read interviews with writers defending their graphic descriptions of brutality by saying that such violence exists in society. While that is true, torture porn teaches us absolutely nothing about misogyny except that some authors will exploit it to sell their books.

Hilary Davidson won the 2011 Anthony Award for Best First Novel for The Damage Done. Her latest book is Evil in All Its Disguises (Forge, 2013), and her new stand-alone Blood Always Tells (Forge) will be published in May 2014

This article was published in Library Journal's December 2013 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.



  1. George says:

    A thoughtful article about violence against women and crime fiction. My work allows me to see the aftermath of violence on a too regular basis. My love of crime fiction does too. In many books, and in the minds of too many people, I fear, there is a huge disconnect about the nature of violence and its long lasting effects on human lives, beyond just the victim. Individuals, families, police officers, schools, and even entire communities suffer, sometimes never recover, and often from one violent act. But I love my crime fiction, which includes violence more often than not. So where should the line be drawn? I can’t answer for everyone, and would never tell an author how to tell his or her story, and neither should anyone else. But that said, to avoid superfluous violence that potentially does more harm than good, perhaps the following questions could be considered:

    Does the detailed violence move the story forward or develop a character in a way that is unlikely to be accomplished in other ways?

    Is violence the strength of the book or all it has to offer, or is it one of many aspects that add to the telling of the story?

    Is the level of violence consistent with the maturity level of the rest of the book?

    Is the violence, its victims and perpetrators, balanced by other behavior and emotions?

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, do the characters react in a way that is believable? Does what they witness and experience impact their development beyond the paragraphs and chapters that include the violent behaviors?

    I know that crime fiction requires a suspension of disbelief, that the strong heroes that seem immune to what would destroy so many of us is part of the attraction of reading the genre. I also acknowledge that i am not an author, and couldn’t write a work of fiction worth that paper it’s written on. But examining the content of a book, in this case the inclusion of violence, by considering the questions above as a start, is what separates a few hundred pages of an entertaining but quickly forgotten story from a book that makes a connection, characters that become a part of the reader. As a reader, I prefer the latter.

  2. Thomas Pluck says:

    Excellent points all. If the victims and the villains are only window dressing, what are we reading for? Thrills? We can read about brutality in the newspaper, it’s the victim’s life that has resonated with me. Like the young staffer who disappears in Reed Farrel Coleman’s The James Deans. Her youthful enthusiasm, so callously snuffed out, stays with me more than any scene of violence. I think some are too influenced by slasher flicks and the spinoffs of novels like Silence of the Lambs. It was Clarice and Lecter’s back and forth that drove the tension; Buffalo Bill the killer was appropriately banal.
    And I’m far from against graphic depictions of violence, as long as they drive the story.

  3. Hillary is correct and sounds appropriate alarm. It is interesting that several of the most egregious examples have been committed by women writers. This suggests other influences, possibly marketing forces inside publishing companies. In my own crime fiction I hope that what I’m doing is concentrating on the circumstances that bring an honest person over the brink of murder and then the fall out–the results. The act of killing, an animal or a person, is not inherently interesting. Nor should it be.

  4. Christina says:

    Thanks so much for being willing to talk about this. I started to notice this after getting guiltily addicted to Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole. Nesbo has imagined a complex and interesting character in Hole but the violence against and victimization of women and the disappointing “good” women characters left me reluctant to recommend these books to anyone, especially my women friends. I don’t think these novels fall into the category of torture porn, but I do think ALL crime fiction writers, including women authors, could do better with the treatment of female characters.

  5. I just wanted to say how grateful I am for all of your thoughtful comments — they really add to the discussion. There is so much more to be said on this subject, and I hope the conversation will continue. Also, a huge thank you to Library Journal for asking me to write this piece in the first place!

  6. J F Norris says:

    Another great thing about this wise and insightful essay is that Hilary Davidson has just gained one new reader for her novels. Me. Thanks.

  7. Hilary, as usual, you’re spot on. I think the misogynistic violence escalated even further after The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published in its American version. Also, I wonder if some of the worst offenders aren’t women writers because there’s a belief that men won’t read crime fiction by women that isn’t really dark and hugely violent, especially against women. I think that belief is wrong, but I do know people in publishing who believe that, and often what people in power believe becomes reality. Like you, I never want to censor anyone, but persistent graphic depiction of horrible violence against women THAT IS ACTUALLY UNNECESSARY TO CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT AND STORY (important caveat) has a consequence of deadening readers to the reality of violence against women, I believe, and makes it more acceptable in real life–something we absolutely don’t need

  8. Rosemary Buja says:

    Two hours ago I downloaded onto my Kindle a book a friend had recommended. I just deleted it and now must take a bath. The book was the first in a series by a woman featuring a woman detective. The victims were all women and all dispatched sadistically. Thank you for this article; I thought it was just me.