Full Talking Bodies Paper: 1990s Male Detective Fiction and the Objectification of Women

talking bodies 2019.jpg

As I’m sure you’ll have noticed if you follow me on social media I’ve just return from an amazing time at Talking Bodies 2019 at my former University the University of Chester. Massive thanks to all the organisers for hosting us all, giving us an amazing experience and for letting me speak, something which I’m proud to say went off pretty much without a hitch. 

My paper is an offshoot of my Master’s degree work I undertook a few years ago, and I’m very proud to be able to showcase it here, so if you missed it or just fancy a read, please do, and feel free to comment or drop me a line if you’d like to explore some of the topics. 

Two of the key detective series of late 1980s and early 1990s crime fiction, Inspector Morse written by Colin Dexter and Inspector Kurt Wallander, written by Swedish Writer Henning Mankell, were both deeply ingrained with misogyny, and I intend to explore this by looking at two key texts.

The Last Bus To Woodstock is the first Inspector Morse novel, and depicts the rape and murder of a young woman who is later found in a pub car park. Throughout the novel, the characters and, I will argue, the author, believe that the woman cannot have been raped because she was promiscuous, despite the fact that one of her sexual assaults occurred after she died.

My second text is Mankell’s The Fifth Woman, which tells the story of the murders of a series of deplorable men in gruesome ways, all of which have been committed by a woman who ran a support group for the other women hurt by her victims, and whose own mother was murdered by one of them. The novel succeeds in othering the female perpetrator and sympathising with the male victims, showing them both as those who have done wrong but also not being deserving of their punishment, whilst she is reduced, at the end of the novel, to the spectre of a grim reaper fleeing from punishment.

Exploring these two texts and their use of women and portrayal of sexual assault, I will argue that Mankell and Dexter were both setting the tone for a host of crime fiction books that degraded and objectified women and which, ultimately, paved the way for the patriarchal society we live in today.

These two white, male writers helped shape a generation of crime fiction authors who would use the rape, murder and degradation of women as mere plotlines. From TV shows such as Frost and Taggart, through to books such as those written by Stuart McBride or even female writers such as P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, Mankell and Dexter’s works influenced the entire 1990 and early 2000’s detective genre. Their work, as shown here, portrayed women simultaneously as helpless objects and calculating temptresses, allowing the authors to blame them for the crimes of their male counterparts.

The Last Bus To Woodstock, Dexter’s first Inspector Morse novel, centres around the investigation into the murder and rape of a young woman found partially clothed in a pub car park. Her body is found by her date for the evening, and it is later discovered that she expected payment for her sexual services.

Frequently throughout the novel Dexter’s characters debate whether or not the victim was raped, due to the scanty nature of her clothing and her reputation for demanding payment for sexual favours. For example, one of the conversations in the book goes like this:

“’Raped too, was she?’

Tompsett drained his glass. “So they say. But I’ve always been a bit dubious myself about this rape business.’” (Page 58).

Throughout the book the reader is given the impression that there is the possibility that the sex was consensual. This is despite the fact that it is concluded by policing bodies around the world that you cannot consent to sex when you are not conscious, including in death, and the pathologist confirms to the detectives early in the book that one of the assaults took place post mortem.

This idea that the sex could’ve been consensual begins when Morse and Lewis initially visit the dead girl’s bedroom, where the following exchange takes place:

“’We’re not making very rapid progress then.’

‘Oh I don’t know,’ said Morse. ‘Miss Kaye was wearing a white blouse, wasn’t she?’

‘Yes.’

‘What colour bra would your wife wear under a white blouse?’

‘A lightish-coloured one, I suppose.’

‘She wouldn’t wear a black one?’

‘It would show through.’” (Page 17).

The implication here is that the pair have discovered a core factor in Sylvia’s character by finding out that she wears dark bras under her white blouses.

At the end of the novel, Morse reveals to Lewis that Sylvia’s date sexually assaulted her corpse, which he does not charge him for, although the boy ‘promised to see a psychiatrist’ (p167). This blatant disregard for what is, in fact, a serious crime shows Dexter’s lack of interest in the actual rape, and his belief that only the death is the only true crime. As such, he effectively dehumanises her by completely removing any control she may have over who enters her body simply based on her clothing and fact that she is a prostitute (she also has another job).

The second novel I would like to look into is Mankell’s The Fifth Woman which is, at first glance, supposed to showcase the malice and violence inherent in patriarchy, with the book depicting the murders of a group of men who have sexually and/ or physically abused women. They are all killed by a woman in an act of rebellion and retribution. However, the novel’s underlying message is far more sinister and misogynistic.

Each of the murder victims is killed in a horrific manner, for example one falls into a Japanese style trap of sharpened sticks and left to bleed to death, another is held captive and tortured.

Throughout the novel Mankell and his team uncover evidence that these men who, on the surface were quiet and respectable business owners, each had a secret. Each was heavily linked to the disappearance of a woman, including a Polish girl who had been missing for decades and whose body is discovered on the land of one of the male victims at the end of the novel. It is discovered that one of the men murdered a woman in South Africa many years previously. She was the mother of his illegitimate daughter, Yvonne Ander, who seeks revenge by murdering him and a number of other men who were abusing women.

At the end of the novel the female murder goes on the run with a rape victim and her baby. No sympathy is shown for their situation, and the killer’s motives are not used to justify her violence, which is much less than her own victims exacted on the women they abused. The killer herself is portrayed by Mankell as a monster only really interested in violent vengeance, as shown in a number of instances such as:

“She was driving through the night, feeling very tired. She had listened to Katarina for hours. She often wondered about the weakness of these women [referring to the abused women]. They let themselves be tortured, abused, murdered. Then if they survived, they sat night after night moaning about it. She didn’t understand them. As she drove through the night she actually felt contempt for them. They didn’t fight back.” (p583).

Here Mankell separated female victims of male abuse into two broad categories: those who complain and those who ‘fight back’ AKA those who inflict as much abuse as they received in return. Neither of these types of women is shown anything short of contempt by the characters in the novel, with the detectives viewing the killer as sad more than anything else and paying limited attention to the other victims once they are ruled out as suspects. Towards the end of the case, as they close in on Yvonne Ander, the protagonist Wallnder discusses her with a colleague:

“’I believe she’s a lonely person’ Wallnder said. ‘And she thinks her purpose in life is to kill on behalf of others.’” (p554).

Later, after he catches her, he also states:

“Yvonne Ander is the first person I’ve ever met who is both intelligent and insane”. (p560).

When being apprehended, Ander shoots and wounds the only female member of the team charged with bringing her in. The officer in question was left alone to lie in wait for Ander, as the male members of the team did not realise until too late that she had picked up a gun earlier when they had first tried to apprehend her. As such, the shooting of the female police officer can be seen as partially owing to the incompetence of her colleagues, and this is the view shared by Wallander, who constantly blames himself for the shooting and refuses to leave her bedside as she recovers.

“Every day during this period Wallander went to visit Ann-Britt in hospital. He couldn’t get over what he was convinced was his responsibility. Nothing anyone said made any difference. He regarded the blame for what had happened as his alone. It was something he would have to live with.” (p560).

Mankell’s reference to other characters trying to reapportion the blame for the incident, and his use of the word ‘convinced’, allows him to draw the reader to believe that the blame is actually squarely on that of Anders. Whilst Anders pulled the trigger, it was Wallander and his team who forgot to tell their colleague that she was armed and left her in a vulnerable position, but in the same way that Mankell does not view her murders as justified in any way or driven by the abuse she and the women she supported had suffered, he also clearly exonerates his protagonist from any blame in favour of levying it entirely on Anders.

Whilst I appreciate that blame is a complicated issue, Mankell effectively uncomplicates this for his reader by showing that although the men in his novel have committed a series of violent murders, rapes and serious abuses of power, they were themselves violently killed by a woman who was, in his eyes, as bad as them. The final chapter of the novel focuses entirely on Anders and her crimes, with the reasons behind them an afterthought rather than any sort of justification. She commits suicide in the end, which is reported to Wallander in the context that he learns there will be no trial, giving the impression that he and the male victims have been robbed of their justice rather than that she’s been robbed of her life.

In the end Mankell focuses more on his protagonist’s feelings of having not uncovered the full truth of why she committed these horrific crimes than the fact that all of these women felt they had been failed by the justice system, which was why they turned to a vigilante in the first place. Anders herself was given painkillers whilst in custody, but this is again viewed more as a tragedy for justice than for Anders herself.

At the end of the day, whilst the examples used here are only two texts, they are written by authors who influenced a generation of crime fiction writers; their works are key to the genre. From Stuart McBride through to Jo Nesbo, plenty of male white writers are writing crime fiction filled with women being murdered, raped and abused thanks to the foundations the genre was built on by writers such as Mankell and Dexter. Their misogyny helped define the crime fiction and thriller space as one filled with mutilated women and made it, for many years, a male dominated space.

That’s now changing with the introduction of female detectives, and writers, but it is a slow process, and the market is still heavily populated with male authors writing about murdered prostitutes and abducted young girls.

Ultimately, whilst this may seem like a small issue- it’s only crime fiction, it’s only one genre- but actually, it’s a drop in the huge ocean of the mistreatment of women. From tiny things like women being policed in what they wear, such as the recent incident of the woman who was bullied into changing out of a crop top on a flight home from holiday through to ‘incel’ attacks around the world motivated by men who believe that women are unfairly denying them sex and every injustice in between, it is clear that every tiny act of sexism has its influence, and these texts showcase and attempt to justify horrific acts of violence against women. We’ve got a president in the USA who thinks it’s acceptable to ‘grab women by the pussy’ and reduce their reproductive rights, and men worldwide who believe it’s acceptable to traffic and objectify women because of a collective consciousness built on work like this.

Written by authors who influenced an entire genre, these books showcase how interpretations of violence and the mistreatment of women spiral and fuel a society that often, as in the case of many rape trials where men are given a free pass because of their athletic prowess or perceived potential, completely allows the degradation, humiliation and dehumanisation of women. This is the legacy that books like these have left, and it’s not a great one.

I’m always keen to hear people’s thoughts on my research so feel free to drop me a shout if you’d like to discuss! 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s