I’m not talking about the long hiatus in blogging (been writing) but a fantastic and well-overdue prize for thrillers.

http://staunchbookprize.com/

This initiative by Bridget Lawless is something I’ve been championing for over ten years. Crime fiction in which the usual clichés of violence against women are absent. Hallelujah!

Photograph by Clare Park

The debate around this prize is interesting and reflective of our times:

“But where’s the tension?”

“Sadly, violence against women is the real world and writers should reflect it.”

“Crime shouldn’t be about issues but events.”

There’s a shift in our thinking, after the backlash against sexual harassers, abusers of power and an embedded acceptance of the structures that enable such behaviour.

Crime authors who use their creativity solely in inventing new ways to assault women are as boring as those who always attribute the antagonist’s psychosis to being ‘abused as a child’.

What I want to read – and write – are crime novels addressing both symptom and cause.

Today’s crimes against the vulnerable are borne of a society which encourages and enables precisely those shocking headlines: powerless people seeking someone weaker to bully, individuals such as President ‘Grab ‘em by the pussy’, mega corporations evading tax and eroding workers’ rights, disenfranchised trigger-happy teens with access to warfare weaponry, organisations such as The Presidents’ Club, and a media which stokes a divisive fire and shrieks when it explodes.

Women are far from the only victims but I applaud the Staunch Prize for introducing an initiative long overdue.

I’m not entering, as my ideal candidate book is already ten years old. But I wish this prize every success and await the winners with more enthusiasm than next year’s Booker/Costa/Baileys.

Debate with Frances di Plino on this exact same subject, in case you missed it.

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B007V512A4/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=B007V512A4&linkCode=as2&tag=trisbook-21

 

 

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Over the weekend, I had a few surprises from readers.

One was disappointing.

Somebody returned a Beatrice Stubbs Boxset for a refund.

“Nothing in the description said it was an R rating.”

An R rating? In Europe, we understand an X rating, but what does R mean?

I checked the definition and it’s pretty vague, especially when it comes to books. R means restricted. Some sex, violence, nudity and if anyone under 17 cracks the spine*, they should be under supervision. (*not a euphemism)

If my reader didn’t like the first chapter – which does indeed involve some medium to strong language, allusions to sex and a gently twisted murder – s/he has every right to ask for his/her money back. No offence taken.

How to communicate to potential readers that Beatrice Stubbs is neither cozy/cosy nor excessively violent/graphic? Is there a scale one can use to reassure the nervous while enticing the curious?

Hmm.

The second surprise was a new review from an Amazon reader called Roxann.

I hope she’ll forgive me quoting her here:

I loved the entire Beatrice Stubbs series… Great plots, wonderful endearing characters and JJ Marsh’s sense of humor is delightful. READ THEM ALL. I am very sad that the series is only six books….. I miss the characters…..!!!!! Please write more.

Now stop that. I know what you’re thinking.

Eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive.

But I do want to mess with Mister In-Between. How do I please both ends of the crime reading spectrum?

What kind of warnings do I add to my books? Maybe we need a new system.

  • Small x: Bad cuss-words, almost-sex and a few bloodstains
  • Small r: Medium swearing and not all dead bodies are female
  • Small c: No creatures or children injured

I started writing crime not to shock or horrify, but to entertain. I don’t want to give you nightmares. My aim is essentially to reassure that good can prevail; that human beings want to look after each other. If you’re reading a Beatrice Stubbs book before you go to sleep, I hope you’re enthralled and excited and even unnerved, but never disgusted, repulsed or upset.

http://amzn.to/2swPPKftoYes, horrible people and situations exist but beware of gratuitous shocks.

The Nasties accentuate the negative, fan fear and distort perception.

This piece by Rene Denfeld sums up why I write crime from the female perspective.

Women can be so much more than victims.

Beatrice Stubbs knows all about the negative but strives, at least, for the in-between.

If you’ve read a Beatrice book – whether you’ve loved or hated – how would you describe it?

 

 

 

 

 

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A friend pointed me to a piece in The Guardian this week, alerting me to the fact my own creation, Beatrice Stubbs, was recommended in the comments. I was pleased to be mentioned and fascinated by the author’s choices.

Drawn like a magnet to lists, I started making one of my own. In doing so, it became clear that the kind of female crime fighter I prefer is a rounded, flawed human being whose greatest asset is her mind.

From The Guardian’s Top Ten, Smilla Jaspersen would have made my list too, as would Claire DeWitt, but here are ten more brilliant women battling injustice, roughly in order of when I discovered them.

Isabel Dalhousie by Alexander McCall Smith

His other heroine, Precious Ramotswe, is more popular, but I return to Isabel Dalhousie again and again.

The setting of Edinburgh, a eclectic collection of endearing characters, our heroine’s sharp self-awareness and the philosophical questioning of moral choices are exactly what I want to read.

Plus she’s an older woman, embracing the ageing process with good grace. No kick-boxing here.

 

Blanche White by Barbara Neely

An African-American maid/housekeeper who has a nose for mysteries, this character is also a social and political commentator on the unjust world in which she lives.

Her strength and intelligence reflect the author’s, a multi-talented mould-breaker who remains an inspiration. This little interview says it all. Wonderful precursor to The Help with layers of analysis couched in tales of mystery.

Harriet Vane by DL Sayers

I was introduced to Harriet by my Triskele colleague, Catriona Troth. ‘Your writing reminds me of Dorothy L. Sayers’, she said. On hearing I’d not read any Sayers, she recommended Gaudy Night, and I’ve never looked back. There is something about The Golden Age of Crime I cannot resist. Plus Sayers, Marsh and Tey characters inhabit a world of steam trains and bicycles without a smartphone to be seen.

Lisbeth Salander by Stieg Larsson

Not a fan of excessive violence or torture in crime fiction, I avoided Larsson’s work for a long time. But when I did finally read The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, I found his depiction of this unconventional personality and mind truly appealing. This character-driven element of his work led me to read more, mostly because of this girl.

Temperance Brennan by Kathy Reichs

Someone gave me a huge box of crime hardbacks as she was leaving the country. Most of them were so clichéd and graphic I gave up on them, with the exception of Val McDermid and Kathy Reichs. The latter introduced me to Tempe. She’s a forensic anthropologist, bilingual and professionally smart if not so much in her personal life. The author wears her expertise lightly, enabling her creation to be expert, flawed and politically astute. She’s also now the subject of a TV series called Bones.

Clarice Starling, by Thomas Harris

Harris is most famous for his unforgettable villain, Hannibal Lecter. But Clarice is a brilliant psychological portrait of a hard-working, vulnerable woman whose determination and persistence enable her to hunt down her man from the smallest of clues. She has a brain and uses all of it.

Ellen Kelly by Sheila Bugler

Sheila is a friend and colleague, whose work I admire enormously.

Like McCall Smith, her setting (South London) is vital, but it’s the damaged, struggling, personable character of Kelly that draws you into the story.

She’s a real woman with a high-pressure job, two kids, and more than one tragedy in her past. After three books, I feel I know this woman and care what happens next.

Start with Hunting Shadows, the first in the series.

 

Stephanie Plum by Janet Evanovich

Crime is rarely funny, but there is a place for dark, wry humour and Evanovich has it in spades. Dry, sassy, feisty and fierce, Stephanie is forced by financial circumstances into the risky profession of apprehension, or bounty hunting. The wit is sharp, the observations acute, the character and her relationships develop over the series. Plum ages well, like a good tequila.

Cassandra Reilly by Barbara Wilson.

Humour is another feature of this clever translator who odd-jobs as a private investigator is her wise-cracking wit and roving eye. Cassandra sticks in my mind as a powerful creation and a rare lesbian heroine in the genre. Like several other authors on this list, Wilson makes the most of her locations, which range from Barcelona to Venice to Transylvania. She really should be better known.

 

This is a personal list but I’d be keen to hear about other female sleuths I’ve not yet met. Any other smart, unconventional, thought-provoking recommendations warmly welcomed. Holidays are all about discovery.

 

 

The final book in The Beatrice Stubbs Series is ready for preorder!

Ebook release: 26 May

Paperback: 3 June

Come along to hear me read, answer questions and sign copies with fellow crime writer Debbie Young on Friday 2 June at Waterstones, Tottenham Court Road. http://bit.ly/2qOn3zE

And here, an exclusive for my blog followers, are the first two pages of Bad Apples.

*****

Extract from Rogue by Anonymous

Bears, clowns, cats, butterflies, demons and angels cavort along the banks of the canal, dancing, laughing and twirling their capes in ceaseless balletic arcs. Music drifts through the night air from the square up ahead, growing louder and more frenetic as I approach. My feet stamp along with the beat.

A black and white chequered mask looms out of the crowd. Man or woman? I have no way of telling. It points directly at me and beckons. A strange force compels me forward. As if under a spell, I have no choice but to follow. The light-footed creature tiptoes onto a tiny bridge, stands in the middle, claps silently in time to the music then runs backwards, drawing its arms together, suggesting an embrace.

Aroused and afraid of losing sight of this hypnotic stranger, I cleave from the crowd and speed up, breaking into a run over the ancient stone edifice after the disappearing figure. A flash of white down an alleyway catches my eye and I give chase, my breath ephemeral clouds in the February chill. Moonlight barely penetrates these tiny backstreets, and when it does, merely illuminates skeins of gauzy mist rising from the Venetian waters, creating a theatrical dry ice effect. A whistle from above makes me look up.

The china-faced harlequin, high above me on a crumbling balcony, lit by an arcane street lamp, genuflects in an elaborate bow. I tilt my head back as far as it will go and stare up at the apparition. How did it get up there so fast? Impossible, unless whoever it is has wings. And how am I supposed to follow? I pace backwards across the deserted street until my back grazes the stone wall and fix my attention on the balcony – a stage no bigger than a dining-table – as the performance begins.

The harlequin spreads its arms wide, revealing the dramatic scarlet lining of its black and white cape. Each arm makes a sweeping gesture, once left, once right, acknowledging a vast imaginary audience. The head rolls in figures of eight, apparently seeking someone in the crowd. Then with catlike precision, the mask looks directly at me. One hand floats to its mouth and it blows me a kiss. I press my fingers to my mouth, offer them upwards and blow one in return.

The harlequin clutches at its heart with one hand; the other reaches out to snatch the kiss from the ether. The clenched fist remains in the air while the head is bowed in gratitude. Long hair, black as midnight, spills around the frozen features. This is a woman, I am now sure. With a slow, ritualistic gesture, the figure brings her fist to her mouth and raises her chin in ecstasy.

Once more the arms widen, as if receiving rapturous applause, and then the figure bows to the left, right and centre. She brings both hands to her painted mouth and blows an expansive kiss to her public. Her arms mime a giant heart shape as she embraces her watchers and holds them close. She repeats the gesture, her beautifully chiselled mask somehow evoking modesty, pride, love and passion without a single movement. The third time her hands return to her heart, they are no longer empty.

In the left, a single red rose, striking against the white diamond on the front of her cape. In the right, a handgun, aimed upwards beneath her chin. She kisses the rose and lets it fall from the balcony to the street below. I watch it tumble to the ground, its petals scattering on the cobbles. The shocking report of a gunshot whips my head upwards.

Against a blood-spattered backdrop, her body crumples over the stone balustrade. Long black hair dangles from the remnants of her blasted skull and the white diamonds of her cape turn dark. Something breaks at my feet. Her mask, cracked into shards. I lift one to the light. Her mouth, painted in a silent, frozen smile.

*****

Order your copy here:

Amazon

Smashwords

Kobo

Paperbacks will soon be available at all good bookshops.

PS: If you want one of the secret signed copies, get in touch.

 

 

A recent rash of reviews delighted, surprised and puzzled me.

People from Germany, the USA, Australia and Brazil not only recommend the Beatrice Stubbs series as crime novels but also appreciate the sense of humour.

Despite the horrors of the case involved, there is always a dash of humor throughout the story, with credible characters and dialogue. Whilst Beatrice is the central character, there is a great ensemble cast of personalities that I felt brought this novel vividly to life. More than once I found myself giggling along at the team members’ interactions as they worked and socialized together.

http://authl.it/B007V512A4

For me, a sense of humour is fundamental to every aspect of life, love and creativity. Whether writing an epitaph or falling in love or creating a crime series, there must be room for laughter.

it is the characters that made this a truly enjoyable, original read. Their banter and interactions, their quirks and the inimitable sense of humor had me laughing out loud. I particularly loved Beatrice’s odd turns of phrase and her love-hate relationship with Herr Kälin, who ended up growing on me.

BCD quote

Is there room for comedy in crime in today’s environment of darker and grimmer noir, or does one instantly get labelled as ‘cosy’?

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Human Rites by J.J. Marsh when I first started the book.  For some reason, I was afraid it was going to be a cozy mystery.

Advice on book marketing says ‘know your shelf’. What are you like? Dan Brown stalks Lara Croft? Agatha Christie snuggles Alexander McCall Smith? Karin Slaughter splatters Tess Gerritsen?

Beatrice Stubbs isn’t cosy. But neither will she make you gag on your macaroni cheese (apart from one scene in Raw Material – apparently it turned one reader vegetarian).

The books address politics, culture, society and morality, but keep plot and character on centre stage.

Certain bits might raise a laugh, especially if you are of the black-humoured sort.

One reviewer put it best.

The easiest comparisons to make with Marsh’s writing are Golden Age detective writers like Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham. Don’t run away with the idea that this means cosy crimes solved by some old dear in between knitting a bed jacket and planting out her spring bulbs… if you like your crime fiction propelled by wit and intelligence rather than by violence, you will love this book.

So where to find Beatrice Stubbs? Turn left after cosy.Beatrice Stubbs Box Set One_KINDLE KOBO

Colin Bateman on wit and balls. It’s No Crime to Be Funny.