Summer musings on Walters (UK), Hykänen (Finland), and the visibility of women in crime fiction awards

After a busy few months, I’m looking forward to 1. writing up reviews of some excellent crime novels and 2. getting down to some quality summer reading.

A fairly random start: two very different novels I’ve recently enjoyed, and some musings on the visibility of women on crime fiction award longlists/shortlists.

Minette Walters

Minette Walters, Disordered Minds (Pan Macmillan 2003). I picked up this plump psychological crime novel at Oxfam Books, and it turned out to be a perfect summer read. Two amateur detectives – Jonathan Hughes, a social anthropologist with a chip on his shoulder, and George Gardener, a middle-aged local councillor, find themselves drawn into investigating a contested old case, the murder of Grace Jeffries in 1970. Her grandson Harold was convicted of the crime, but new evidence suggests that the original investigation may have been botched.

I’ve not read anything by Walters before – a bit of an omission on my part – and am now keen to read more. Her approach to dissecting criminality reminded me of PD James and Ruth Rendell, particularly in its focus on British attitudes to race and class. A satisfying read with some lovely characterisation and interesting socio-political commentary (it’s set against the backdrop of the Iraq war in 2003), but with a slightly over-convoluted ending.

Nykanen

Harri Nykänen, Behind God’s Back, trans. from Finnish by Kristian London (Bitter Lemon Press, 2015 [2009]). This novel is the second in the ‘Ariel Kafka’ series (I reviewed the first here back in 2012). Aside from its Finnish setting, the most distinctive aspect of this series is its lead investigator, who is one of only two Jewish policemen in Helsinki. He views the world with a typically wry Jewish humour and allows readers to gain an insight into Helsinki’s small Jewish community, with which he has a slightly strained relationship as he’s not exactly a ‘model Jewish citizen’ – non-observant and stubbornly single.

The novel opens with the murder of a Jewish businessman. Kafka is tasked with figuring out whether the murder is racially motivated, a business deal gone wrong, or something altogether more complex… As was the case with the first novel, the plot got a bit complicated towards the end, but I thoroughly enjoyed Kafka’s irreverent, blokey company, and was very happy to go along for the ride. A superior police procedural.

And so to the subject of crime fiction longlists and shortlists.

Gold

My last post included the CWA International Dagger longlist, which I was disappointed to see included no works by women authors. Here it is again:

Title Author Translated by Publisher
The Truth and Other Lies Sascha Arango Imogen Taylor Simon & Schuster
The Great Swindle Pierre Lemaître Frank Wynne MacLehose Press
Icarus Deon Meyer K L Seegers Hodder & Stoughton
The Sword of Justice Leif G.W. Persson Neil Smith Doubleday
The Murderer in Ruins Cay Rademacher Peter Millar Arcadia
The Father Anton Svensson Elizabeth Clark Wessel Sphere
The Voices Beyond Johan Theorin Marlaine Delargy Transworld
Six Four Hideo Yokoyama Jonathan Lloyd-Davis Quercus

I started thinking about how this all-male longlist might have come about. Here are some possibilities, some of which are valid, some not. The answer probably comprises a few of these factors in combination.

  • No works by women authors were submitted for the award. Not the case: the list of novels submitted for this year’s International Dagger is available at http://cwadaggers.co.uk/cwa-international-dagger/. It shows that there were 45 works submitted, of which 13 were authored or co-authored by a woman. If my maths is right, that’s nearly 30%.
  • Fewer works by women were submitted, so the chances of these reaching the longlist were accordingly smaller. That’s definitely the case, given the 70% (male), 30% (female) split. And this kind of ratio seems to be typical. Translator Katy Derbyshire, writing in The Guardian, recently identified a twofold negative trend in relation to international fiction. Firstly, fewer women authors are published in their home markets; secondly, fewer still are selected by English-language publishers for translation. This means that works by international women authors in English are ‘a minority in a minority’. Their chances of winning prestigious literary prizes are thus pretty low.
  • However, even given those factors, the law of averages would still suggest 2 or 3 works by women could have made the International Dagger longlist. There were certainly some strong contenders on the submission list, such as Karin Fossum’s The Drowned Boy (Harvill Secker), Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless (Orenda) and Claudia Pinero’s Betty Boo (Bitter Lemon Press). Why didn’t they make the cut?
  • At this point we have to acknowledge that judging is a subjective process involving a number of factors and evaluations. So it may simply be coincidence that the longlist ended up being male-dominated (their novels happened to be the best this time round). Equally, however, there may be unconscious biases that drew the judges towards that particular set of novels. These *may* include a gender bias, but could also include others, such as a preference for a particular type of crime fiction (psychological, police procedural, thriller, whatever), or for crime set in a particular country (Sweden, Japan, South Africa)…

A swift look at some other recent longlists/shortlists shows the following: 

  • The 2016 CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger features three women authors on its longlist of eight (37%).
  • The 2016 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel (announced today!) features three women authors on its longlist of nine (33%).
  • The 2016 Petrona Award (for which I’m a judge) featured two women authors on its shortlist of six (33%). Our submission list had a worse male/female ratio to the International Dagger this year – 8 works by women authors on a submission list of 42 (19%).
  • The 2016 Man Booker International featured two female authors on its shortlist of six (33%). It was won by Han Kang – a woman author – for The Vegetarian.
  • A significant exception is the 2016 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, which features eleven women authors on its longlist of eighteen (61%). This award has also been won by women for the last four years (Denise Mina twice, Belinda Bauer and Sarah Hilary).

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

All the above has made me scrutinise my own reading practices and biases (not always a comfortable process). I’m keeping a list to check my own reading/gender ratio, which I know some other bloggers do as well. It’ll be interesting to compare notes.

Some thought-provoking articles on and around the subject

Katy Derbyshire, ‘Translated fiction by women must stop being a minority in a minority’The Guardian, 10 March 2016

Hannah Ellis Peterson, ‘Male writers continue to dominate literary criticism, Vida study finds’, The Guardian, 7 April 2015 (particularly interesting contribution by Rob Spillman on tackling systemic problems)

VIDA, ‘The 2015 VIDA Count’, 30 March 2016. VIDA (Women in Literary Arts) is a US-based organisation that scrutinizes the representation of women in the sector (looking at interesting stats like the proportion of women reviewers on magazines).

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30 thoughts on “Summer musings on Walters (UK), Hykänen (Finland), and the visibility of women in crime fiction awards

    • Good, thanks! It’s been a bit of an experiment trying to get ‘Crime Fiction in German’ to cross-over from a traditional academic market to a broader one, but there is definite interest, and all the events I’ve done have gone really well. We even sold some copies at CrimeFest (the Waterstones manager looked very surprised at this, which was gratifying)!

      Now in the process of planning a proper Krimi panel for CrimeFest17, which is very exciting.

  1. I agree with realthog – she is a bit up and down, but The Sculptress I remember as particularly good – and I’ll look out for The Shape Of Snakes, too!

  2. Morning Mrs P. ☺ Interesting what you say about women crime writers, and the lack of them in crime awards. I had a quick shufty through Ethel’s store of books 🔰 and found quite a few, enough certainly to keep the chaps on their toes. Ann Cleeves (always one of my favourites), T.M.E Walsh, L.J Ross, Lisa Hartley, your chum Sarah Ward, a couple of Swedish lasses, Viveca Sten and Camilla Lackberg. And considering that it was the late great Agatha Christie that really set the ball rolling in modern crime fiction, yes, it certainly makes you think. Minette Walters also has written some blinders too. My favourites The Breaker is set just down the coast a bit from Southampton. Acid Row, based on a sink estate where the locals don’t understand the difference between a paediatrician and a paedophile with alarming consequences. As well as her first book The Ice House made into a TV film with a very young pre Bond Daniel Craig, and of course Pauline Quirke as The Sculptress which was brilliant. I’ve not read many of her later books, which is something I must remedy asap.

    • Evening, Kathy P 🙂

      I’ve done a little more nosing around, and have found a bit of an exception to the rule – the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year (added to my list above). Over 60% of the 2016 longlist is made up of crime novels by women, including Ann Cleeves for The Moth Catcher (I like her work very much as well). That prize also has a strong track record of women winners, which is good to see. But the overall trend is around 30% of women on longlists (I wonder if this is what’s now deemed an ‘acceptable’ ratio or whether it’s a reflection of fewer women making it into print – more research required).

      Thanks for all the extra information on Walters – some lovely details there such as the early Daniel Craig performance. I vaguely remember Pauline Quirke’s role in The Sculptress (she’s taken on some very interesting roles post Birds of a Feather). The Breaker and Acid Row added to my list. I know Southampton and the surrounding area a bit, so may go for the latter first.

      • Theakston’s Old Peculiar, what a wonderful name for a crime awards, and no doubt just as tasty as it sounds. I’m rather partial to half a bitter shandy 😊 me. Perhaps that’s why it’s mainly a female line up 😉! I’ve already pre-ordered Ann Cleeves’ and Sarah Ward’s next books (the titles of which currently elude me) so Ethel and I will be incommunicado when they arrive.
        Pauline Quirk was absolutely chilling in The Sculptress, and an actress than can switch from a role like that, to Birds of a Feather, then to a detective in Maisie Raine, then Emmerdale, gets my vote anyday.
        You’re welcome re the info on Minette Walters. I can remember things from 20 years ago very clearly, but ask me what I did 20 days ago, and you’ll get a blank stare!! I’ll have to dig out her earlier books if I can find them, or keep my fingers crossed they’ve been ‘kindled’.
        Have a nice weekend.

      • Thanks, Kathy P – hope you have a lovely weekend too!

        The Theakstons prize is awarded at the Harrogate/Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival (Theakstons is its sponsor, in case you hadn’t guessed…).

        Hope you enjoy Cleeves and Ward! I’ve got a proof copy of A Deadly Thaw and am enjoying it very much.

      • Now that you’ve said realthog, I remember her in it as well. She’s married to Mark Knopfler I believe, and has also several works of fiction under her belt too. A talented lady.

      • That’s her. When I think of the movie, I have to scratch my head to remember that Daniel Craig and Corin Redgrave are in it! I don’t know why she hasn’t had a far more prolific screen career.

      • Daniel Craig played the part of the detective. And I agree, she doesn’t seem to have made that many what I call ‘big budget’ films, but I do remember her in A Room with a View, and Maurice, both books written by E.M Forster I believe. TV appearances, I do remember her in (yes I’m sorry) Heartbeat, Cadfael and Porterhouse Blue. She may even have popped up in the odd Morse, Midsomer Murders etc, but don’t quote me on that 😕.

  3. It’s a really interesting discussion Mrs p, I noticed a few years ago I was reading about 3:1 men to women , last year probably 45 out of 105 books read were by women (good reads certainly helps this sort of analysis).
    I wonder whether the renaissance of British women crime writers will make a difference, amongst my favourite books this year have been Eva Dolan, Alex Marwood , anya lipski, and Renee knight, together with , of course Val macdermid, and Denise Mina.
    I still tend however toward male in continental crime although must try Karin fossum, and have enjoyed Fred Vargas . I struggled with the first Camilla lackberg and first yrsa sigurdardottir which I haven’t revisited as I found the romantic element a little distracting and wonder if that’s just me or a gender issue.
    Anyway a very interesting discussion.

    • Hello Andrew – thanks for your comment, and it’s very interesting to hear about your own reading experiences.

      Can I ask how Goodreads helps you to keep track of gender ratios (I don’t use it enough to know)?

      For info, a group of women crime writers have got together as a collective – Killer Women – more info here: http://www.killerwomen.org/who/

      If you liked Vargas, you might enjoy Dolores Redondo’s The Invisible Guardian – will review soon, hopefully.

      • Nothing too technical Mrs p, it does show the books you’ve read so I was able to count the gender split. I’m just starting ‘ the hanging’ by lotte and soren hammer following your mention of a subsequent book in the series which interestingly is a brother and sister combination.
        I suspect it is a publishing issue . Thanks for the recommend as Eva Dolan was an author I saw on your blog so I will search out ‘ the invisible guardian’ and killer women.

      • Thanks for the clarification, Andrew – very useful to see your reading at a glance.

        Melanie McGrath is one of the Killer Women – if you’re looking for something a little different (and haven’t read any of hers yet), the ‘Edie Kiglatuk’ series (set in the Arctic) is well worth a look.

        Happy reading!

  4. Vida has done some excellent studies on the percentage of male/female writers whose books are reviewed in a publication, on the percentage of male/female reviewers, etc. I’ve seen list of books read by men and there are NO women writers listed. Some men will not read books written by women, or, very few, if so.
    I am very surprised that of eight books on the CWA International Dagger list’s longlist. Shocked, actually, in 2016. There should have been two or three.
    Who are the judges? What do they read?
    I agree that Heikkapelto’s books are excellent and so are Claudia Pineiro’s.
    There has to be a gender bias. Maybe the authors’ names should be blanked out and titles and books labeled “A,” “B,” etc. and the judges read them not knowing who wrote them.
    When this was done here with musicians trying out for an orchestra, there was a curtain so those deciding couldn’t see the gender of the applicants when they played their instruments. The results turned out more fairly than when genders were known.
    There is still sexism, whether unconscious or conscious. There has to be a better way to deal with this — or else women should set up a Sisters in Crime International and have their own awards and ceremonies. This is absurd in this day and age and when there are so many excellent women mystery writers from England to Australia and back.

    • Hello kathyd – thanks for your comments. I agree that it’s very unusual these days to see a longlist that one-sided, and I like your idea of anonymity (a policy adopted by lots of higher education institutions including my own when marking, to avoid all kinds of bias). I’m not quite sure how workable anonymity would be in a crime context (the judges are already likely to know some novels and their authors), but definitely worth considering.

      Sisters in Crime organisations are good as advocates for women’s work. There’s a strong one in Germany that started off as a chapter of the American one, and a small UK group called Killer Women who have come together (presumably) with similar aims. But no single prize for women crime writers as far as I know…yet.

  5. So, the Theakston shortlist of six has four women authors. And, as you said there were 11 women of 18 authors on the longlist. So, who are the judges? How many are there and how many are women? This is much more representative of the changing world of writers and readers.

    • Hi kathyd – Yes, Theakston’s is much more representative. I haven’t found out who the judges are (will see if I can). But one extra interesting bit of information – the winner is decided not just by the judges, but by a public vote. Not sure how this system works in practice, but I like that readers get to have a say as well.

  6. I definitely like that readers can vote for the Theakstons’ award.
    I also see that most of the judges for the CWA International award are women, so I”d like to know their reasoning for how they voted. And perhaps readers should vote here, too.

    • I agree with you there kathy.d, and very much like the idea of readers being able to vote for the Theakston’s award as well as a panel of judges. After all, it is us that buys the majority of the books in the first place.

  7. Such a wonderful post, Mrs.P! I am so happy to see more and more bloggers fighting for crime ficiton women writers – and I’m so honoured to call some of those bloggers my mentors!

    I love crime fiction written by women, and I still get asked by I *only* read crime fiction written by women. Sometimes, if I’m not too tired, I will explain to them it’s like choosing your favourite food, you just don’t have a reason. But, when I’m angry, I always go into the ‘how-many-men-writers-have-you-read’ and people end up calling me sexist, which I find funny. I guess we still have a lot of work to do, but the important thing is we’re doing it together 🙂

    • Perhaps Elena, it’s because a lot of women writer’s are better than men 😉!! Not that I’m sexist at all, but when I’m on the lookout for another book to read, I tend more to go on what the story is about, and who and what the characters are like. That perhaps, there maybe more female than male authors is just the way it is ☺

  8. I often rely on women writers, but then I hear about a good book by male author and I try to read it. But I realize most of my favorite mystery writers are women. But not exclusively. I’m enjoying Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy now and he does character development well, not to mention how hard it is to survive financially for so many people on the island.

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