Quieter than Killing (Marnie Rome #4) by Sarah Hilary

Sarah Hilary is back with another instalment in the acclaimed Marnie Rome series. If you have followed this blog for some time, you will know that I am a great fan of the series, but also of Sarah, who I met at CrimeFest15 and who is always open to discuss feminism, and women’s crime fiction with me. No wonder she is an active member of Killer Women, a wonderful organisation that aims to bring together women in crime fiction. Now that I live in England, I was lucky to borrow her latest book from the Public Library (more on my love for British public libraries soon).

Quieter than Killing by Sarah Hilary

Quieter than Killing take places nine months after [NAME OF PREVIOUS BOOK], with a cold English winter making things even more difficult for Marine and her team. This time, they are investigating a series of attack on random people in London. As they struggle to make the connections between the victims – different genders, different ages, different social classes – they come up with a theory: There’s a vigilante on the loose. Their approach to the crimes is not welcomed by DC Ferguson, the new glamorous DC that has come to temporarily replace Welland. As Marnie faces life without the unconditional support of her beloved boss, Noah worries about his little brother Sol, who has been missing for days, and the strange texts that someone following Dan, his boyfriend is texting him.

As usual, Hilary is a mastermind at mixing the main characters’ lives with their professional duties. The delicate balance and interweaving between private and professional has always been a trademark of the series, but the author has overdone herself in the fourth book in the series as Sol’s presence, and becomes more crucial in the crime narrative. Stephen, Marnie’s younger adopted brother and the killer of their parents makes an appearance as a secondary character after his main role in the previous book, and as he lets chaos unravel, Marnie wonders if everything was a game for him, and whether there might be some true to his words.

Walking is the repeated act of saving yourself from falling. Where had she read that? In one of those books Lexie, her therapist, gifted to her six years ago. Moving forward was momentum, you just had to keep doing it.

Back to the case, if the Marnie Rome series are known for their pace, Quieter than Killing is the perfect example of a page-turner. I loved the previous books, but I only gave them 4 star reviews at Goodreads. However, I read the latest in the series in less than 3 sittings and I found myself constant needing to return to the book, even after long days reading and writing for work. I was never bored, as the case and the characters picked my interest in many ways. Hilary keeps her trademark narrative device of including the victims’ perspective throughout the novel, but this time she also introduced two secondary female characters: DC Ferguson and professional mediator Zoe Marshall. Lorna Ferguson is a middle-aged woman who dresses sharply, owns a gold-rose MacBook, and works long hours at the precinct in Louboutins. Zoe Marshall is younger, and works with children involved in local gangs, and her aesthetics will appeal to the novel’s younger readers. It is thanks to them that the latest Marnie Rome will connect with a wider audience, but also with anyone looking for better representation of women in contemporary crime fiction.

At this year’s CrimeFest, Hilary confessed that she already knows how book 6 in the series will begin, which will make her readers write angry emails to her of the likes of ‘HOW DARE YOU’. It is not wonder the author is thinking ahead, as the Marnie Rome series are enjoying one of the healthiest, most steady-fast evolutions in contemporary crime fiction written by a woman. Serial crime fiction at its best.

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Interview with Paula Hawkins for Crime Fiction Association

As many of you now know I am also a freelancer writer and an organiser for the Captivating Criminality 4 conference, an annual event organised by the Crime Fiction Association. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to interview writer Paula Hawkins (The Girl on the Train) yet again for the Association’s blog and we discussed women, crime, and her latest novel Into the Water. To read the interview, click here.

News: Crime Fiction Conference and #PhDLife

As I said last week, big crime fiction news were to be released soon. So, here they are! I am very happy (and proud!) to be part of the Captivating Criminality Organising Team for our  2017 conference Crime Fiction: Detection, Public and Private, Past and Present. This event is part of an interantional effort by the Crime Fiction Association – led by Dr. Fiona Peters from Bath Spa University –  to fully incooporate crime fiction studies as valid and serious research in the Humanities. If you want to learn more, please click here to visit our website. You can also find us on Twitter @CrimeFic, and on Facebook Fb.me/crimefic.

Meanwhile, you can check the programme for our 2017 conference to see how people from all over the world are joining efforts to research crime fiction (*):

http://www.captivatingcriminalitynetwork.net/programme.html

(*) Please note that the programme is still under construction and may be subject to changes

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Getting to Know the Author: Sophie Hannah

One of my new tasks in my recent move to the UK is to help organise an event in which some crime fiction writers are involved (more information on the event soon!). As the crime fiction family is such a big and diverse one, I was not surprised to realise that I had never read anything about one of the women authors participating, but I was certainly curious about her work. In an effort to solve that gap in my reading history I have decided to do some research about the author and read at least one of her novels. Here’s Sophie Hannah:

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British novelist and poet Sophie Hannah was born in Manchester (England) in 1971 to an academic father and a writer mother. She went to study at the University of Manchester and saw her first book of poems published at the age of 24. She continued writing with critical acclaim, with her work usually compared to Wendy Cope’s and Lewis Carroll’s. Currently her poems are studied at A-Level in the UK.

Despite her skills as a poet, Hannah is more well-known for her novels, especially her crime novels. Her first psychological thriller Little Face was released in 2006, and since then she has written more than 12 crime fiction novels. These works feature detective Sam Waterhouse that the British press has already catalogued as a household name. However, I am currently reading book #5 in the series and although I feel I am missing out something regarding Sam and the police department the plot is easy to follow and I am really enjoying the story.

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She has also worked prominently in the fight for crime fiction to be considered ‘serious’ literature, and she takes pride on being known as a crime writer. She has stated that Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell were some of her favourite writers growing up, and that they have inspired the writing she has been doing since she was a 6-year old. In a 2015 interview for The Guardian she openly discussed the necessity to reevaluate crime fiction:

There is still a great deal of snobbery about crime and thriller writing. There are people who think a crime novel can’t be proper literature, mainly because they are prejudiced against genre fiction and writing that is plot-based. Whether one ought to care about this, I’m not sure. Personally, I’ve always thought crime fiction is the best kind of literature. Done well and properly, there is no better kind of fiction. If other people can’t see that, then I think that’s a shame for them but I am not going to get angry about it.

Despite her success as a crime fiction writer Sophie Hannah success skyrocketed when she became the heir to Agatha Christie’s literary legacy. In 2014 she famously earned the blessing of Agatha Christie’s family and State to publish a new Poirot novel The Monogram Murders. The book received mainly positive reviews, with Laura Thompson from The Guardian highlighting that: “The first posthumous Hercule Poirot mystery impresses with its intricacy” and Alexander McCall Smith writing for the New York Times answering the general public’s fear: “Does Sophie Hannah’s Poirot live up to our expectations? Yes, he does, and markedly so”.

The Monogram Murders is based on a plot that Hannah had in mind but had not managed to include in any of her modern thrillers. However, when her agent approached her with the Christie State’s proposal to write a new Poirot novel, she realised that it was time to develop said plot. During an interview with Harper Collins Hannah addressed the controversy of bringing such a beloved character back to life. However, she stresses that Agatha Christie still is the best-selling writer of all time and the new Poirot novel is a way to let new generations discover Christie’s work. The novel was such a success that a second installment Closed Casket was published in September 2016.

Sophie Hannah is without a doubt one of the big names in contemporary crime fiction in the UK. Her works show a diverse range of skills, as well as a passion for literature. So much so, that Hannah was a fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford between 1997 and 1999. Currently she is a Fellow Commoner at Lucy Cavendish College, and she lives in Cambridge with her husband, children and dog.

Into The Water by Paula Hawkins

When I first read that Paula Hawkins had a new novel coming out this year I freaked out. As you recall I loved The Girl on the Train, and I was immediately smitten with Hawkins on her first interview here as soon as she expressed her views on women and crime fiction. You can revisit the interview here. So, when I saw pictures of her new novel Into The Water to be published on the 2nd of May, I knew I had to get my hands on one. I also knew I would love it (spoiler alert: I was right!). Thanks to Paula and to Alison Barrow’s team for sending me one.

Into The Water by Paula Hawkins

‘Nel Abbott is dead’, she said.

‘They found her in the water.’

‘She jumped,’

Into the Water starts with the death of Nel Abbott in a small town in England. But she is not the protagonist of the story, as her identity is reconstructed throughout the novel by her estranged sister Jules who sees her return to their hometown to take her of Nel’s daughter Lena as her late sister’s last and darkest joke. However, Jules’ is not the only voice in the book. As it happened with The Girl on the Train, Hawkins creates a story from different points of view playing with the readers’ perception of the characters. If Rachel was a divorcee and an alcoholic, Nel is a hippie, an artist, a beautiful unmarried woman who leads a tranquil life with her daughter. Or isn’t she? Playing with social and gender prejudices, Hawkins makes the reader face long-held beliefs about women, knowledge and body issues. The background of Nel’s life is plagued by her obsession with the Drowning Pool, an enchanted part of the local river in which witch trials and sacrifices took place, holing a special attraction to the women of the town ever since.

With the reminiscence of witchery trials and the secret behind women’s knowledge in a 21st century story, Hawkins is brining back the social construction of women’s knowledge, as well as the sometimes trickery action of being defined by prejudices in a small town. Nel’s life constructs her as liminal in the white, middle-class and familiar environment of her hometown. Her beauty is considered dangerous. Her daughter is said to be following her steps. And the bond between them is strange to even the closest pair of mothers and daughters. And above all, she is obsessed with the Drowning Pool and the women who died there. So much so, that she is writing a book about them. A collective biography that aims to bring together the life and death of the women that jumped into the water, partially reproduced thanks to Jules in the book. Hence when Nel’s body is found in said drowning pool no one thinks twice about it, except her daughter. Was Nel the kind of woman who would jump? Who was Nel Abbott?

Like good English crime fiction, Into the Water is a crime novel and a character study. Like a Paula Hawkins book, the story forces readers to question the social construction of each of the characters’ identities, as well as their own definition of self. Confronted with the death of her sister, Jules sees herself become legal guardian to Nel’s daughter. But why were the Abbott sisters estranged in the first place? Lena is faced with her mother’s apparent suicide, but also with her best friend’s. What did the two women have in common? Detective Sean Townsend has seen enough death in the Drowning Pool of recently, will he able to solve the crime? These are only three of the several characters that construct the narrative and that faithfully reproduce the power of the community in the social construction of narratives.

I enjoyed The Girl on the Train a lot and I thought that from a feminist perspective the book has done a lot to question women’s representation in crime fiction. But Into The Water is even better, as Hawkins directly addresses the historical persecution of women’s knowledge and the agency that stemmed from it. However, those issues could easily become secondary for the general crime fiction reader, who will find a complex page-turner with a shocking ending. Totally recommended to all my readers here.

He’s Gone by Alex Clare

Last January’s Women’s March events all over the world raised a lot of questions about who had a right to participate, and why. The concept of “woman” has been destabilised and questioned since Simone De Beauvoir announced to the world that one becomes a woman, rather than being born one. In fact, postmodern theorists like Judith Butler have denied the existence of a subject that exists under the label ‘woman’, and instead advocates for a more diverse take on womanhood that breaks away with society’s traditional constructions and expectations.  Hes Gone explores this postmodern postulate by having a trans-woman detective as a main character. Meet Robyn Bailley, DI of the Meresbourne police in Kent (UK), a working-class town witness to the industrial crisis of the 20th century. Like the town, Robyn has felt her life deteriorate for decades now. That is, until she realised that she no longer was Roger Bailley, but Robyn.  Is crime fiction ready for a trans-woman main character? Apparently not. As Robyn struggles to come back to work as her true self, she will find rejection from her colleagues, Melissa – mother to Ben – and whose child’s disappearance she is investigating; and the rabid journalists who want to know more about her transition and think that maybe she is not the right person to be involved in a case involving a child. If this situation was not enough, Robyn’s daughter cannot believe what her father has become and wonders if their relationship can move forward to healthy grounds.

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Hes gone can be labelled as one of the first novels to introduce a trans-woman main character in crime fiction. But the novel is also rich in female characters, and one of its peculiarities is the construction of the victim’s mother as a dislikeable woman. Robyn’s struggle is also adorned with the echoes of Melissa’s conservative church, for whom Robyn’s identity emerges as a dangerous and contagious state of identity that should not be allowed to exist: “Let me be clear. I meant why were you speaking at the press conference? Now, rather than thinking about Benjamin, everyone will be focusing on you and your deviance”. Melissa Chivers emerges as one of the most unlikable characters in contemporary crime fiction, where the victim and their family needed the sympathy of the detective, and the reader, in order to move the story forward. Not in this novel. The creation of Melissa as unlikable character works as a test for political correctness when she is described as an overly ambitious black woman who made herself, but who is a terrible mother to her kid. This type of femininity, that goes against the traditional image of the loving and caring mother, presents the reader with questions about how the expectations of being a woman in contemporary society, as well as the importance of seeing beyond stereotypes in criminal investigations.

Ironically, Robyn perceives Melissa as a woman that exudes the power and authority that she feels she is lacking, and that Roger clearly had. In an effort to present herself to the world in a similar light, Robyn keeps in mind Melissa’s body: “She remembered how Ms Chivers stood when she exuded a feminine authority and turned a little to the side so that she no longer faced the camera head on, putting one foot half a pace in front of the other. That felt more natural”.

Along with posture, Robyn has also incorporated new hair, and the use of make-up and nail varnish to the set of acts that make her a woman. These typically feminine products become her trademark, as they are used to trace the thick line that has traditionally separated masculine and feminine aesthetics. Her insistence on adopting traditional female markers could not have found a better historical moment, as Third-wave feminism, postmodernism at its best, relies on traditional feminine traits. As Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards explain in Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future (New York: Farrar, 2000): ‘Girlie encompasses the tabooed symbols of women’s feminine enculturation—Barbie dolls, makeup, fashion magazines, high heels (p. 136.) However, traditional feminine aesthetics are constructed in spaces restricted to women with no safe space for masculinity. As Robyn faces her first week as a woman, the novel takes us back to Roger’s decision to buy women’s clothes for the first time, and the worried looks of the shop assistant that forced him to purchase Robyn’s wardrobe fully on the Internet: “She’d visited a few shops as Roger but the questioning looks from shop assistants whenever she’d picked anything up had put her off and decided it was much easier to buy the first set of female clothes online”. Hence, social media and the Internet emerge as a safe place in which liminal identities can be performed and shared with people with a similar life experience. The community Robyn found online, as well as the anonymity of online shopping, granted her the opportunity to explore alternative constructions of womanhood, as well as people who, like her, do not adhere to traditional cisgender discourses. The ultimate questioning of the construction of safe spaces for the performance of non-normative gender identities comes up in the form of bathrooms. After Robyn’s struggle to choose which bathroom to use, the issue intersects with Donald Trump’s recent revocation of federal protection for trans-students in schools all over the country starting a conversation about human rights, and the construction of gender identity. In her first day back, she enters the men’s bathroom, but she will later on move to the disable’s one.

The patriarchal segregation of non-white and non-normative bodies outside the dominant discourse tangentially emerges as a key element in the construction of the postmodern identity and the forensic detective process. As Robyn negotiates her new identity with herself and her colleagues, she ponders on the physicality of forensic science, and the need to go beyond the metaphysical and consider the importance of the victim’s personal narrative and life story. This moment, although as brief as a paragraph, constitutes a remarkable point of inflexion in contemporary crime fiction, comes when the remains of a victim need to be identified though DNA testing. In this precise moment – and still a year far from her complete physical transformation into a woman – Robyn realises that were she to die, her DNA would come up as masculine in the system. With this scene, Robyn’s narrative is questioning long-held beliefs about the legitimacy of forensic science, and the blind trust that the 20th century deposited into scientific discourses. It is true that the production of scientific knowledge needs to rely on the metaphysical world in order to avoid past mistakes such as the pseudo-scientific theories used to back up racism and discrimination against women. But, crime fiction goes a step beyond this metaphysical world and posts questions about the construction of the subject victim from the investigating team’s point of view.

The necessity of approaching the detective process from a more personal point of view led to the questioning of Robyn’s detective process, as she sees how the loss of Roger’s male gaze has resulted in her re-education about what she is allowed to see as a policewoman. If Laura Mulvey met Robyn, she would have a perfect case study of how men are given the privilege of looking, while women are looked at. The term “gaze” appears throughout the novel linked to the pressure Robyn feels from people around her, yet another struggle of her new identity. This is reflected in Roger’s pastime as a photographer, while Robyn struggles to pick up a camera after her transformation. However, discrimination is subtler, with of her peers presuming that Robyn, unlike Roger, will not be driving the police car, relegating her to the passenger’s seat, where she is a mere spectator. As the late John Berger stated (1972): ‘Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’. Robyn herself feels the weight of this gaze when the case becomes news, and she is faced with several press conferences. Have the audience noticed her chipped nail polish? Will the camera enhance the different between her skin tone and her new foundation? And, will the evening audience notice that the laser removal still did not get away with her beard? Directly related to being watched comes sexual harassment, which takes a darker turn with Robyn’s trans identity, as an officer jokes she may be on her period, on the one hand constructing women’s minds as unstable and, on the other hand, being cruel to Robyn who clearly does not have a period. Her final recovery of agency will come through the detecting process, as Robyn solves three cases in collaboration with her team and finally finds peace in her negotiation of her past and present by incorporating Roger’s professional experience into Robyn’s life story. In the eureka moment that postmodern fiction relies on – that scene where everything comes together and the truth is revealed to both the main character and readers – Robyn can only solve the case because of the specific knowledge that comes from lived experience, in her case, a female (albeit short) lived experience.

As Roger morphed into Robyn, she was faced with the task of redefining her relationship to those in her inner circle of friends. The novel centres around Robyn’s relationship with her daughter, Becky, to whom Robyn communicated her new identity in a letter. The necessity to redefine paternity in the postmodern is also highlighted by the case Robyn investigates, as the disappeared child’s father is unknown. However, Robyn’s daughter appears as a young agent of change, who will offer the detective the possibility of deciding which place to occupy in her life. Robyn’s decision to remain Becky’s father opens up a dialogue about how gender structures family life, and the necessity to break way with traditional representations of motherhood and fatherhood. The case itself works as a bone of contention, as Robyn faces the recent of the emergence of conservative groups that, in the postmodern era, fight for a return to more stable definitions and meanings. As the mother of the victim, a religious extremist member of a cult against abortion, homosexuality, birth control, and any kind of “diversity gone mad”. Melissa voices religious concerns about gender fluidity, but The Men’ Rights movement also makes an appearance highlighting the necessity of every child to have a father relaying on traditional discourses based on gender-biased arguments. However, the eventual defeat of these discourses comes from Robyn’s solving of the case and her refusal to give up a job she loves.

He’s Gone by Alex Clare is a thrilling post-modern novel in which the inclusion of a trans-woman detective questions the conception of the detective novel and its normative and traditional representations of women as victims. However, it is still to be seen whether the novel receives praise for its inclusion of a transwoman as a main character in a literary tradition that has been considered masculine since its inception, or whether the creation of a trans character by a cisgender woman is still problematic. I, for one, was very happy to meet Robyn, and I hope that more writers – cisgender, trans, and genderqueer – venture into crime fiction to prove that the word ‘detective’ welcomes all subjects alike. It’s just about time.

Flashbacks by J.E Hall

I borrowed Flashbacks by J.E Hall from a friend from university who, knowing of my passion for crime fiction, thought I would enjoy a thriller by a local author that she is familiar with. Turns out, she was right!

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Meet Adam, a nineteen-year-old about to enjoy his gap year bicycling all the way from his native England to the Middle East. Over-protected by his parents, who insist on safety issues that he, clearly does not need.

Kaylah is doing Business Studies at Southgate University and daughter to Bishop Sam Kone, descendant of Caribbean immigrants and a television star. As any young woman, Kaylah does not agree with her parents’ beliefs, and keeps her mind open to other religious ideas.

Ali has recently given up his engineering studies to join IS because that is what was needed of him. However, after the expansion of the group in late 2014, things are now too quiet for his taste, until he is assigned a very special mission.

Flashbacks tells the story of these three main characters interconnected as they meet, work together, and fight against each other at a time when religious freedom and mobility has defined the UK as a true melting pot. However, the lives of Adam, Kaylah, and Ali are far more complicated, and as they prepare to celebrate Armistice Day, they all have different goals in mind. The novel is an outstanding representation of contemporary diversity in which religion plays a key role. The first in the Adam Taylor trilogy, it presents readers with the main character after whom the series is named, but also with Kaylah, one of the most impressive female characters I have encountered in recent political thrillers.

Written in a style clearly reminiscent of John Le Carré, Flashbacks shows the intimacy and social preoccupations that have characterised British crime fiction during the 20th century instead of just focusing on the action. With each chapter devoted to each of the main characters, the book inscribes the youth in the thriller tradition breaking away with middle-aged secret agents who have been doing their jobs for decades. Instead, Hall gives Millennials access to the Intelligence Services and reminds society that we can do some good work too.

Flashbacks is a thriller that will keep you in the edge of our seat until the very last page while also posting important questions to the reading audience. In current times, when religious extremism has changed the world as we know it, it is important to keep an open mind and go beyond essentialism believes and alt-right propaganda. The introduction of Ali’s IS ideals as a main character is a significant change in contemporary literature, even though, as a thriller, the book keeps a clear line between good and bad, and there is no space left for moral relativism. But, in a fast-paced thriller like this, there is no time for lucubrations, and that is OK.