Readersforum's Blog

February 25, 2012

LURID: Deadlier Than The Male

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

By Karina Wilson

Murder is a man’s, man’s, man’s world, supposedly.  There’s a rigid gender equation at work in both newspaper headlines and airport paperbacks: male killer, female victim(s).  The traditional view has been that female killers are rare, that those of the “gentler sex” have to be provoked into murder most foul by extreme circumstances, usually sexual abuse.  Even in fiction, they have to be (in Shirley Maclaine’s telling categorization) a “victim, doormat or hooker” first, before they are permitted (by their usually male creator) to embark on a vengeful rampage.  In order to be a sympathetic character for the reader, they must maintain their fragile, feminine core.  Yes, Lisbeth Salander, I’m looking at you.

It gets off-putting for female readers if women keep ending up on the mutilated-and-dumped-on-an-empty-lot side of the crime thriller equation. Especially when there are five seasons of Investigation Discovery’s most decidedly Lurid true crime show, Deadly Women, in my Netflix queue that suggest that the tables are often turned.  While male killers seem to grab the headlines and the stereotypes, over the centuries the female of the species has been quietly poisoning, suffocating, and even stabbing and shooting her victims.  It’s just that you never noticed.  She’s clever like that.

FACT: female serial killers escape detection for, on average, eight years, almost twice as long as their male counterparts, and may even go for decades before anyone even realizes that there is a serial killer at work.  Put that in your electric chair and smoke up a side of beef.  No, wait: juries are often reluctant to give women the death penalty, and prefer to hand down life sentences, unless the convicted’s crimes are heinous indeed. Carol Bundy, one half of the Sunset Strip Killers, got a life sentence (although she died in jail) while her partner, Doug Clark, was sent to Death Row.  Not all murderers are equal under the law and sexism cuts both ways.

There is a long-established culture of females who kill (and kill again) that gets less and less underground by the day. The number of women convicted of homicide has exploded since 1970, and on the other side of the law, governments are recognizing that women operatives represent a valuable resource. My top secret source (thanks “J”) tells me that many new Delta Force assassins are women, and I’m sure you all saw that story about Iranian female ninjas.

So where are their fictional sisters, goes the cry? Where are the female Hannibal Lecters, Dexter Morgans, Patrick Batemans, James Bonds, Tyler Durdens and Tom Ripleys?  It’s true they’re more difficult to spot than their butcherly brethren, and are often the far-off object rather than the first person subject of narratives.  Nonetheless, deadly damsels have been a staple of Bad Books for centuries – where would Shakespeare be without Lady Macbeth and Tamora, Queen of the Goths?

Aside from revenge killers, like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, or Dawn Kincaid in the Kay Scarpetta books, female multiple murderers can be categorized into six basic types, according to Michael & C. Kelleher’s Typology (Murder Most Rare, 1998).  Although this list was derived from US studies in the 1990s, the real life categories have plenty of fictional antecedents. You just have to look in some of the less obvious places.

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