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Murder and Misogyny

posted on 26 Aug 2017

Murder and Misogyny

For a long time one of my guilty pleasures has been reading crime thrillers and watching the TV adaptations. As many of you will no doubt agree – it is a rich and varied seam. I have to admit that I am not particularly discerning about what I consume because for me it is pure escapism - so on the one hand I can enjoy arty and complicated Scandinavian ‘noir’, the beautifully written novels of Ian Rankin and Val McDermid,  become engrossed  with the cosy crimes of Agatha Christie and many other such ’classics’ and even watch  the patently absurd plots of Midsomer Murders – it just depends on my mood. 

At least that’s what I thought until recently when I have had to abandon a couple of crime books because I just couldn’t stomach the content. This wasn’t about gratuitously descriptions of torture and murder or even bad writing – they made me squirm for a different reason. Whilst I know that that they portray fictional worlds and are pretty far from the lives of real-life detectives, there are some overlaps and I know that most authors are keen to convey some level of authenticity. I remember hearing an interview with Val McDermid in which she chuckled knowingly as she explained that she is sometimes regarded by the public as an expert in solving crimes because of her convincing attention to procedures.

There is, however, one area where this ‘realism’ has become too hard for me to take. My problem is that I just can’t keep reading stories packed with the casual and prolific sexism that was portrayed as being normal in the police force before equalities legislation made it less common. Obnoxiously sexist and crude policemen seem to be everywhere in certain types of crime fiction written by men. Characters like Detective Inspector Andy Dalziel, the creation of the author Reginald Hill, is pretty tiresome around women in the TV version of the popular series. I tried to read one of his books recently and was very irritated by his double entendres and general leeriness.  Even the supposedly civilised and sensitive Detective Chief Inspector Morse created by Colin Dexter tends to hover around attractive women in a way that makes me feel rather uncomfortable in the books and on TV.

Perhaps I’m being over critical of fiction that probably, in truth, reflects attitudes that are still  mainstream (if more hidden) within the police and, indeed, a whole host of other places where social attitudes to women can often be objectionable and offensive. But the real question is whether the sexism of these authors is there to reveal something about their character or whether the reader feels that the author is in some way comfortable with the sexism, endorsing it even. When this misogyny goes on page after page, you have to wonder.

On television I quite like the maverick character of Detective Inspector Jack Frost as played by David Jason (despite the fact that he is obviously far too old and unhealthy to do all the chasing of criminals). The TV series, first broadcast in the early 1990s, is based on the series of books by R.D.Wingfield and focuses on his rather eccentric and loveable qualities which are portrayed as being highly unorthodox in the police force. Whilst he is clearly an unreconstructed, ‘red blooded man’ of his time, Jason portrays Frost as being a warm, funny and affectionate man who enjoys the company of women but still has a fierce moral code. So I was delighted when I stumbled across a first edition of Hard Frost, published in 1996, because I haven’t actually read any of the books before.

I settled down to enjoy it on a lazy Saturday afternoon but had to give up reading by page 43! Page after page was packed with Frost’s dreadful misogyny. I could have stopped much earlier but was determined to give him the benefit of the doubt because he was that dear- old- cuddly- Jack- Frost-from-the telly after all and I also wanted to find out who was the murderer. So for a while I swallowed hard and I managed to stay calm at his and others' systematic verbal abuse of the new female detective sergeant Liz Maud:

‘Let that flaming tart do some work for a change instead of painting her lousy fingernails’

‘What does the silly cow think we give her a radio for- just to keep in her bloody handbag.’

That was bad enough and pretty relentless, but maybe typical of workplace banter at the time – who knows? But it got much worse when Frost searches the house of Koo Chen, the beautiful young girlfriend of the father of a missing young boy and finds her skimpy nightdress under the bed:

‘The naughty nurse’s nightie … Cor, I bet her little bottom pokes out from under that like a couple of honeydew melons…’

I really didn’t know much about R.D.Wingfield but when I did some digging around it came as no surprise to find out that the author wrote some scripts for Kenneth Williams, star of the Carry On films and by this point ( page 29), I was hearing that actor’s voice in my head instead of David Jason. Nevertheless  I continued reading, muttering to myself that I needed to keep my sense of humour, and so ploughed through more pages of casual sexist remarks until I arrived at page 43. This was the beginning of the end as I read about a naked young girl flagging down a car:

‘A naked girl and he didn’t stop? I’d have stopped if she was only half naked… Bloody hell, I’d have stopped if she was fully dressed with one titty hanging out.’

I closed the book.   

Karen Argent

August 2017