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04.12.10

Why Crime Novelists Don't Get Women

Most women in crime novels and thrillers are such terrible clichés, says novelist Christopher Rice. He identifies the four most common and ridiculous ones—and says writers should stop being so lazy.

Bad things can happen when tough guy crime novelists write women. I'm hardly what anyone would call a tough guy, but I do have five thrillers to my name that were well received. That said, my perspective on the opposite sex is limited by my gender and more than a little skewed by the scads of poorly rendered female characters who pollute the genre I so love.

When it came time for me to write my new novel, The Moonlit Earth, with a female protagonist, I realized a few research lunches with my gal pals wouldn't offer up enough grit to make my heroine convincing. I had to sit down and map out the sand traps that seem to snare my brothers in the genre when they try to shape a story in which female characters do more than serve coffee to their detective bosses. Forgive me if some of these caricatures seem more like TV staples, but the line between prime-time crime and published thrillers is more fluid than ever; that's why the former denizens of hardboiled pulp novels are now shooting their way through network shows with confidence.

Most women have a much higher tolerance for physical pain than men do. Most men hate to admit it, but it’s true.

So here goes. Here's a run down of the women I'd love to see run out of best-selling thrillers across the board. Some of them are best left to discussions between their creator, his mother (and possibly his therapist), and some of them are best left in the trash. And while I admit, I may have included some of them in my previous work, rest assured, I'm doing my best to keep them at bay from here on out.

THE COP'S WIFE WHO JUST DOESN'T GET IT. Enough of this woman. Seriously. Enough. She doesn't understand the demands of the job. She wants her husband to stop solving crimes so he can be home in time for dinner, an Easter egg hunt, and several hours of scrapbooking. She is, apparently, the only woman on all of planet Earth who never saw a movie or TV show about how hard it is to be married to a cop. Worse, the recurrence of this whiny, unsympathetic caricature in a writer's work makes an unpleasant statement about the writer. If there's no mention of actual detective work in said writer's bio, readers will assume he was one of those guys who wouldn't set aside his jigsaw puzzle long enough to help his wife take out the trash, and that makes him a lazy shlub, not a misunderstood hero who's more at home on the mean streets of the naked city.

book-cover---the-moonlit-earth
The Moonlit Earth. By Christopher Rice. 368 pages. Scribner. $25. ()

THE BABE ASSASSIN. She is svelte and cat-like. She looks like a supermodel, but she can crack a man's neck between her thighs. She's the femme-fatale on steroids and on the surface, she seems to suggest the writer's belief in gender equality. ( See? A woman can shove a snitch's hand down a garbage disposal just as well as any man!) When she's handled, well, she can be a lot of fun to read. But she's rarely handled well. More often than not, this female ninja comes to us via a writer who has gorged on graphic novels for most of his life. Her high-kicks and chokeholds turn into a repetitive form of sexual performance that titillates straight male readers, for a few chapters at least, but bores the rest of us before she has time to leap from her next crossbeam. (Spoiler Alert: There is epic sexual trauma in her past!)

THE ICE QUEEN BUREAUCRAT. Maybe she's a cop who is a stickler for the rules because she's trying to impress the men upstairs. Or maybe she's a consultant who spends all her time in CIA computer centers. In both cases, her personality is unsavory, her knowledge of procedure, protocol, and backstory too vast for her male counterpart to summon any real affection for her. After a few chapters, we realize her primary role is to deliver great big dollops of exposition while the male characters poke fun at her the way the author probably made fun of his sixth grade math teacher. She's the literary cousin to Katherine Heigl's uptight TV producer in that movie The Ugly Truth, with one major exception. The guys can't give her the hair-letting-down session the writer believes she's so richly deserves because her abrasive personality is key to the investigation at hand. At some point she expresses tenderness toward her cat.

THE TOKEN LESBIAN COP. The road to bad writing is often paved with good intentions. But soon after these brawny lady officers reveal their sexual orientation mid-way through the book ( Well, since you asked, Sergeant, my husband's name is Tammy!), they go from being attempts at political correctness to dudes with breasts. They don't get all bent out of shape when the hero cracks wise about women's backsides. How cool is that? Cool, maybe. Connected to this plane of reality? Not so much. A lesbian who doesn't have strong opinions about the objectification of women is about as easy to find as a Stephen King novel that doesn't quote the lyrics of a famous rock song.

We need our tough-guy writers just like we need everyone who braves the vast fields of unpretentious, popular fiction. But when a writer wants to write a thriller from a woman's point of view, he needs to do more than slot one of the caricatures above into the starring role. And sometimes that means the tough guys need to dig a little deeper and accept some truths about the opposite sex they have trouble swallowing. Case in point: Most women have a much higher tolerance for physical pain than men do. Most men hate to admit it, but it's true. Characters who have the capacity to endure intense physical hardship can anchor exciting thrillers just as strongly as a P.I. who opens interviews with his fists.

I'm confident more truths like this are bound to rise to the surface if we chip away at the stereotypes and Freudian constructs that dominate the depictions of women in crime novels written by men. And yes, I'll be doing my part, too.

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Christopher Rice is the author of four New York Times bestselling novels. A native of California but a Southerner by blood, Christopher lives in West Hollywood.