Lady Cops, Femme Fatales, Henpecking Wives, and Hottie Badasses: Female Stereotypes in the Crime Novel

On a tip from my mom (hi, mom!), I recently checked out an article by Chris “My Mom’s Name is Anne” Rice, entitled “Why Crime Novelists Don’t Get Women.” In his piece, Rice selects several recurrent female stereotypes that he thinks the genre could stand to lose: The Cop’s Wife Who Doesn’t Get It, The Babe Assassin, The Ice Queen Bureaucrat, and the Token Lesbian Cop. It’s pretty amusing, and I’d say, rather right on (we’re talking to you, Lisbeth), although Rice is mainly talking about mainstream thrillers and TV show police procedurals. It’s an enjoyable piece, though, so take a look.

Also, you may want to listen to the related interview that Rice did on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.” He gives a shout-out to Ross McDonald, which I appreciated, and there are actually some interesting points made by callers, which if you listen to call-in radio shows, is maybe not always the case.

Since we’re here, I thought I’d mention a pair of recent examples of females in more traditional roles in the genre which, I think, have been admirably handled. For one, P.D. James’ Cordelia Gray is fantastic. She’s a former secretary who inherits her former boss’ PI Business after he kills himself. I really loved her first book An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.

Another secretary-cum-detective I enjoyed recently was Lydia Richard’s Kitty Pangborn, who I am familiar with from the novel Death Was in the Picture.

There are certainly more, but I’ll leave it at that for now. Thoughts, anyone?

Mark Your Calendars: A Preliminary PEN Festival Schedule

As I’m sure all of you know and are currently marking your calendars for, the PEN World Voice Festival starts this week, on Monday, April 26th. Luckily for me (since I still have evening classes on Monday and Tuesday until next week), things don’t really get started until Wednesday. There are well over 50 events, so I will hardly try to draw your attention to all of the ones that look interesting and worthwhile. But here are some highlighted readings and panels that I am going to do my best to get to–let me know if you’ll be there! (Also–just an observation, but it seems like there are more ticketed events this year than there were in years previous. Has anyone else noticed this?)

Thursday, April 29

5:30 – 6:30 PM: That’s Not What I Meant!

Swiss author Peter Stamm and the poet who translates his work, Michael Hoffman, talk about the challenges of translation.

7:00 – 8:30 PM: A Gathering of Voices

Conveniently located in the same place as the translation panel, this event features children’s authors David Almond (whose book Skellig I’m going to try very hard to read before Thursday), Janne Teller (whose book Nothing I will also try very hard to read before Thursday), Francisco X. Stork (whose book Marcelo and the Real World I have luckily already read and therefore won’t be in a pinch to read in three days–thanks, Leigh!), and Ed Young. All four authors will discuss their books and their own cultural influences.

Friday, April 30

1:00 – 2:00 PM: The Poetry of Edward Hopper

So I’ll be going to a lunch time event on Friday, although there are several that look interesting, so I’m not sure which one will win out. This event features Catalan poet Ernest Farres, who recently wrote a book of poems based on the paintings of one of my all time favorite painters.

1:00 – 2:30 PM: Incognito: Writers and their Aliases

I actually don’t know the work of any of the panelists, but it’s a very interesting topic for discussion–the importance and/or benefits of remaining anonymous as an author.

3:30 – 4:30 PM: Quim Monzo in Conversation with Robert Coover

Catalan author Quim Monzo’s book Gasoline has recently been released by Open Letter Press, and not only does the novel sound really interesting, Monzo is also an accomplished translator himself. (His credits include J.D. Salinger, Dorothy Parker, and Ray Bradbury.) Sure to be a very good discussion.

5:00 – 6:00 PM: David Almond and Sofi Oksanen in Conversation with Rakesh Satyal

This one I have to attend. Sofi Oksanen–whose haunting book Purge just won the Nordic Prize for Literature (and which I’ll be reviewing shortly)–talks with David Almond about the benefits of writing young characters, particularly when writing about traumatic events. 

8:00 – 9:30 PM: The Translation Slam (Ticketed Event)

An on-the-spot translator’s ‘duel.’ Participants this year will spontaneously translate from German and Hebrew.

Saturday, May 1 (Derby Day!)

1:00 – 3:00 PM: New European Fiction (Ticketed Event)

Readings and discussions based on the recent release of the first installment of the Best European Fiction series.

1:00 – 2:00 PM (Note Major Time Change): Patti Smith and Jonathan Lethem in Conversation (Ticketed Event)

I’m not sure if I will actually be able to handle listening to these two (equally respectable, but equally ego-endowed) artists try and talk around one another. But hey, it’s Patti. And my neighbor. So, you know, maybe. I’m sure that this will be one straight hour of awesome and ridiculous things being said with straight faces.

Sunday, May 2

2:30 – 4:00: Two Worlds (Ticketed Event)

Authors who now live in the US, but who were born in other countries, talk about the influence of American fiction in their own writing, as well as the differences between trends in contemporary American Fiction and that of their native countries.

5:00 – 6:30 PM: Black Sheep & Exploding Turbans

In the wake of the publication of a series of satirical cartoons about the prophet Mohammed in Denmark, several European authors come together to discuss Europe’s struggle to reconcile with its growing Muslim minority community.

6:30 – 8:00 PM: Sherman Alexie: The 6th Annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture

Alexie will be giving a speech entitled “I, writer: The artistic, political and economic responsibilities of writers in the digital age,” which will certainly be worth attending. Alexie is interesting both as an author for teens and adults, and his take on what it means to be a writer as the landscape of the publishing and literary world changes should be engaging on many levels.

Awful Library Books

I must draw your attention to a blog called “Awful Library Books,” which is run by two public librarians at a small branch library in Michigan. The blog is “a collection of public library holdings that we find amusing and maybe questionable for public libraries trying to maintain a current and relevant collection.” Skimming the posts, there are some real gems:

  • Disco Roller Skating (1979)
  • Childbirth with Hypnosis (1968): which apparently speculates that “…women who do not want children are usually psychosexually immature and generally reject to some degree the feminine role.”
  • The Family Foot Care Book (1983)
  • The Musical Atari (1984)
  • How to Be a Reasonably Thin Teenage Girl (1986): which includes chapters called “How’d you get so fat anyway?” “It’s Called Exercise, or, Get Off Your Duff and Do Something” and “Fifty Ways to Lose Your Blubber.”

Anyway, splendid blog–do check it out.


My review of Stig Sæterbakken’s novella Siamese is now up at Three Percent. Sæterbakken is an intriguing figure, although Siamese is only the first of his many works to be published in English. He published his first book (of poetry, I believe), when he was in high school and most recently has stirred up quite a bit of controversy by inviting vile Holocaust denier David Irving to the Norwegian Literary Festival in 2009 (the theme of the festival, pointedly, being “Truth”).

American author Jim Krusoe wrote a nice review of Siamese for the New York Times (which also makes an attempt to reasonably justify Sæterbakken’s choice to invite Irving to the literary festival).

There is also a very interesting speech given by Sæterbakken at a symposium in 2005 called “My Heart Belongs to Europe. Therefore It is Broken,” that I would suggest checking out. Beyond making some very interesting assertions about Norway’s sense of identity and cultural history, the speech also mentioned something that I was completely unaware of: Norway has two official languages. I’ll quote:

“As some readers may know, Norway has two official languages. The first is bokmål – literarally the “language of books” – a modernised form of what was once standard Norwegian, which in turn was derived from Danish. The other is nynorsk – literally “new Norwegian” – a language created by the linguist Ivar Aasen in the mid nineteenth century, a synthetic language based on Norwegian dialects from all parts of the country.

Our two different languages have been – and still are – subjects of dispute, since different parts of the country have bokmål or nynorsk as their main language. For example, we have controversial laws regulating the use of nynorsk on the radio and television. We have nynorsk Publishing Houses, papers written solely in nynorsk, and so on. And conversely: papers that refuse to print articles in nynorsk.

This language dispute has been going on for over 150 years, and has become a part of our political everyday life, to such a extent that some claim Norway is divided into five or six independent zones, defined in terms of the prevailing language spoken within them, zones that have a minimum of contact with each other, like states-within-the-state. Although this is an exaggeration, the fact that it is possible to say such a thing in all seriousness reflects how deeply this language dispute goes within the nation, and shows how irreconcilable both sides have been from time to time.”

I feel like I really should have known this, but I didn’t. At any rate, you can read my review of Siamese at Three Percent here, or see the full text below.


Since his literary debut at the age of 18, Norwegian author Stig Sæterbakken has made a name for himself by challenging convention. At times, this challenge has manifested as an interrogation of the Norwegian nation’s sense of identity and its relationship to Europe. At others, it has revealed itself more questionably, such as during the 2009 Norwegian Literary Festival on “Truth,” when Sæterbakken, the festival’s artistic director, invited universally reviled Holocaust denier David Irving to be a speaker at the event. (In his New York Times review of Siamese, author Jim Krusoe suggests that Sæterbakken might have been reasonably motivated in this instance, inviting Irving in order to “see what would happen when an agreed-upon truth was forced to confront a pernicious, stubborn falsity.”)

More than simply igniting controversy, however, Sæterbakken has established himself as an accomplished poet, essayist, translator, and fiction writer with more than a dozen publications to his credit. His novella Siamese, which was translated into English earlier this year, is the first installment in Sæterbakken’s “S-Trilogy” (so-called because all three titles begin with the letter ‘s’). Sparsely narrated in unadorned, clipped prose, Siamese tells the story of Edwin and Erna, an elderly couple whose relationship embodies a sort of degenerating symbiosis, a mutually antagonistic and passively spiteful codependency from which neither can escape.

Edwin, the former administrator at a retirement home, is now almost completely blind and living in self-imposed isolation in his and Erna’s apartment bathroom. Subsisting almost entirely on gum and flat cola, Edwin has forced his body into the most fetid deterioration, a squalor sustained—and in some respects, supported—by his hapless, nearly deaf wife whom he harangues and berates as a matter of sport. Isolated as he is—dependent on Erna for everything from changing his catheter to spoon-feeding him the occasional meatball—Edwin takes every opportunity to exert the substantial control he has over Erna, and by extension, his waning life. “It’s my world in here,” he states proudly.

Here, my word is law. I know this room like the back of my hand. It’s as though I have a map of the room in my mind, and I’m intimately familiar with all its sounds, I hear even the slightest movement…It’s true, nothing that anyone does in here escapes my attention. I need to know their positions and what they’re doing at every moment. And whenever anyone else is here, anyone aside from Sweetie, that is, I immediately have the upper hand, immediately score a decisive victory over nature, over what nature’s taken away from me, now wholly at ease, empowered. It’s me who dominates the situation.

Despite all her slavishness, Erna too finds ways of exerting her dominance over Edwin. While her husband opts for more obvious aggression and emotional abuse, Erna’s manipulations and quiet acts of defiance remain almost entirely undetected by her husband. For instance, Edna’s deceit about Edwin’s trusted physician, Dr. Amonsen. Although the doctor has long since moved away, Erna continues to pass along medical advice to Edwin under Amonsen’s authority. “He’s always seen Dr. Amonsen as his savior. His faithful defender.” she explains.

. . . I’ve always lied to Edwin when he asked about Amonsen. I didn’t know what else I could do . . . When Edwin asks me to ask Dr. Amonsen about something, I always let a few days go by before I tell him what Amonsen’s reply was. And as long as I say it was Amonsen who told me this or that, Edwin accepts it immediately.

In the course of tracing Edwin and Erna’s increasingly confrontational power struggle, Siamese explores the truly elemental fears and desires that motivate all of us—the fear of death or inadequacy, the frailty of the body, the need to feel in control, the desire for power. The couple’s relationship is one that also has the potential to be read as a larger, historical allegory. Consider a speech called “My Heart Belongs to Europe. Therefore It is Broken,” that Sæterbakken gave in 2005, during which he discussed the former Norwegian alliance with Denmark. “Our union with Denmark lasted over 400 hundred years,” he said. “The Danish rule is often referred to as the ‘400-year-night,’ an expression taken from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt”:

Recent research, however, has cast doubt over our conception of this long lasting oppression that we, obviously being the weaker half of the Siamese twin Denmark-Norway, experienced during the union…[A] considerable part of the culture we think of as being fundamentally Norwegian, as symbols of Norway as a nation, has been given us by foreigners, Danes mainly, the influence from Danish culture, especially through trading, goes much further back in time than those 400 years of Danish reign.

Without delving too far into Sæterbakken’s assertions about Norwegian cultural history, one can still appreciate the symbolism that he seems to allude to here, and apply it to Edwin and Erna’s relationship in Siamese. The metaphor of two mutually dependent and mutually destructive countries can perhaps expand the scope of this hermetic novel and give it more resonance for readers familiar with Scandinavian history. No matter how it is interpreted, however, Sæterbakken’s novel presents a challenging and frequently disturbing portrait of the balance of power and wages of control in any codependent relationship.

GoodReads Makes eBooks Available

In an interesting development, my most-beloved social netbookworking site, GoodReads, has introduced a whole slew of eBooks available for download on their website. Available titles include Midnight Sun, the as-yet unfinished parallel Twilight novel narrated by Edward Cullen that Stephanie Meyers passive-aggressively made available on her website in 2008 following a manuscript leak, as well as time-honored classics like Pride and Prejudice and The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Nicely enough, there do seem to be some foreign language titles available–a cursory search found a smattering of titles in Arabic and German. The list isn’t very easy to search so far–only browseable by “most downloaded” and “popular titles” (which means nothing, really)–but this is a nice addition to the site nonetheless.

While we’re talking eBooks, some others that I’ve found helpful/enjoyable in the past:

GirleBooks: a oh-so-cutely named website focusing on eBook titles by women (where I once found a desperately sought-after version of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South):

The International Children’s Digital Library: A favorite site for me–both great for language-learning purposes and for an interest in children’s literature. You can’t download books from the site, but it’s still quite a resource. They have 4,386 books in 54 languages and are trying (eventually) to translate each title into 100 languages:

The Next Big Thing: Angels

I’ve been told by librarians and YA aficionados who are much more in the loop than I, that as vampires once again go out of style (until the next time), angels–of the guardian and fallen varieties–are the Next Big Thing. The Guardian appears to agree: here’s an article from this weekend about the “new teenage reading cult.” Interesting, but admittedly, completely not for me.

Nordic Council Literature Prize Awarded to Sofi Oksanen

Finnish author Sofi Oksanen (who has an awesome author photo) has been awarded the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize for 2010. Ms. Oksanen will be one of the authors at the PEN World Voices Festival, and will be participating in three events, including one “conversation” with author David Almond (whose book Skellig, which won the Whitbread award, has been on my YA reading list for awhile).

So mark your calendars!

And, by the by, Oksanen’s book, Purge, for which she won the prize, is about to be available in English.