Four episodes into HBO’s crime show True Detective, I thought to myself, This is so good, it’s almost like a book. For this viewer at least, True Detective achieved a rare balance. Standard procedurals like Law & Order are reliably engaging because we know the mystery will be solved and wrapped up (more or less) nice and neat by the end of the hour. But stuffing plot twists, red herrings, and personal strife into an hour-long format can be hasty if not, at times, absurdly implausible. On the other hand, endless dramas with mysteries at their core run the risk of failing to resolve the puzzle long past the point where viewers still care enough to tune in each week.
But True Detective contained the psychological depth of a drama with the reliability of a procedural — in short, all the satisfaction of a great mystery novel. Let’s hope that the eight episode mystery format returns for at least another season.
One particular wish (buoyed by rumors) for a second season is that HBO will cast female detectives next time around. Amid the outpouring of love for the show, more than a few viewers diagnosed True Detective with having something of a “woman problem.” The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, for example, wrote that she was worn out from True Detective’s “macho nonsense,” what with its lack of complex female characters and tired trope of male detectives “avenging women and children, and bro-bonding.” In short, True Detective offers the same old “heroic male outlines and closeups of female asses,” and that’s boring.
These conventions are as tough to shake in the crime novel as they are on television. If you love a good mystery book, there is little getting around the fact that most of the victims are women. A little girl goes missing, is a classic opening. Or, The body of a woman is found. A whole sub-genre, the “Special Victims Unit” of these books if you will, involves violent sexual crimes against women. If women must always be the victims, why not have them be the saviors, too?
As someone who inhales crime novels in bulk, I was getting a little tired of the male detective-female victim set-up myself. Recently, the owner of the wondrous Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca (a shop so charming I’d like to move into it), remarked to me off-handedly that I had a “type” when it came to mysteries — I went for the female detectives. (I use the term “detective” here loosely to describe the crime-solver, whatever their job or lack thereof.)
I never intended to discriminate against the men! But there was some truth to his observation. It wasn’t a matter of principle, it was about the books. Female “detectives” were bringing new twists to the classic tropes. Some of the best mysteries I was reading had women cracking the cases.
So whether or not True Detective returns for another season and solves its woman problems, here is a short list of crime novels (many of them the start of series) where there’s a woman in charge. You might discover, like me, that you’re an accidental fan of the female detective. And if you have any other recommendations, please share — with True Detective over, it’s an especially bad time to run out of crime novels.
Garnethill by Denise Mina
Garnethill begins when Maureen O’Donnell wakes up with a terrible hangover to find the dead body of her lover, a psychiatrist at the outpatient clinic she attends, tied up dead in her living room. There are clues in the room that point to Maureen’s own trauma as an incest survivor — secret pieces of her personal history that almost no one knows about. Looking to clear her name, Maureen and her close friend Leslie, a domestic violence shelter employee, begin uncovering a horror story of abuse at the local psychiatric hospital.
Maureen and Leslie are as hard-living and jaded a duo as True Detective’s Cohle and Hart. They have seen terrible things. The novel, the first in a series, takes place in economically-ruined Scotland, and the descriptions of booze are almost loving. (Glenfidditch, ice, and lime cordial. Peach schnapps and fizzy lemonade from a two-liter. A whiskey miniature with a cold can of Kerslin.) This is a sex crime book, but one where the avenger is a victim herself, and no Stieg Larsson-esque male heroes show up to do any last minute protecting. In Garnethill, those tasked with protecting the vulnerable are often the most dangerous, and it’s usually up to the vulnerable to protect themselves.
It might sound like there is nothing more empowering than a victim of sexual abuse taking on crime flanked by her motorcycle-riding, domestic-violence fighting friend. But fair warning: Garnethill is dark and angering, for the ways in which Maureen and Leslie touch on reality. Maureen constantly reminds that crimes don’t end for the victims just because the perpetrator has been stopped. Tough girl Leslie reminds of how much ingenuity it takes for women who protect other women to counter the physical threat that men pose. Together, though, Maureen and Leslie achieve that magic of any great crime-fighting partnership. Each is strong and weak in her own way, and just when you think one leans more on the other, everything changes.
The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths
The Crossing Places, first in a series featuring archaeology academic Ruth Galloway, begins when the local chief detective approaches Galloway about bones found in a bleak area near Norfolk, a sacred ground in the Iron Age. The chief detective believes these might be the bones of a young girl who disappeared ten years before, and whose abductor continues to send him letters riddled with obscure archaeological and literary references.
Crime brings several men into the life of Ruth Galloway, who is nearing 40, single, overweight, and living a solitary with her two cats. Ruth is relatively content about this arrangement; it’s the men about her who don’t quite know what to do with her. Watching men react to Ruth is frustrating but also great fun. Some patronize her, others desexualize her. Some assume she needs protecting, others forget her in their haste to protect more delicate-looking females. They are all rather inept. Forget solving the crime, Ruth has her hands full dealing with the men bumbling about her. But despite its grim crimes and grim setting, The Crossing Places is on the lighter side and Ruth is infinitely relatable.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
In Sharp Objects, hard-drinking, damaged, and recently institutionalized reporter Camille Preaker returns to her hometown after eight years to report on the disappearance of two girls. Gillian Flynn’s most famous character is Gone Girl’s cool girl/psychopath Amy, and in Sharp Objects, Flynn’s first novel, the women are likewise the show-stoppers. Camille’s hyper-perfect mother, with her crew of bored and medicated ladies who lunch, and her beautiful, Mean Girl half-sister, flanked by popular groupies, run the town. Staying in the secretive and somewhat surreal mansion with these two alpha-females and her own resurfacing past, Camille is very, very vulnerable. She’s trapped in a world of women that she doesn’t understand and that grows increasingly sinister. Girl world is a scary place to be.
Sharp Objects provides a counter-narrative to True Detective — the women in the novel are powerful, well-connected, and menacing. Not to say that Sharp Objects sends up female stereotypes or empowers women. More than once I’ve wondered: does Gillian Flynn even like women? In a Millions conversation on Flynn, Edan Lepucki and Janet Potter note that Flynn “repeatedly portrays hanging out with women as torture.” Nonetheless, Sharp Objects inhabits the world of women as fully as True Detective inhabits the world of men. As a female reader, there was something familiar about the grotesques in the world of women that made reading about them that much more eerie than the usual male suspects.
The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill
The Various Haunts of Men, the first in a series by Susan Hill, is billed as a “Detective Simon Serrailler” mystery. But DCI Serrailler is barely a presence for much of this first book. Instead we follow Freya Graffham, a newly arrived detective in Lafferton, England who has just left London and a marriage that failed for relatively banal reasons. Hill’s book begins when a female jogger goes missing without a trace, and in pursuing the case, Freya is caught up in the world of alternative medicines, miracles, and snake-oil salesmen.
What hooks Freya onto the case is discovering that the missing woman has a bold case of unrequited love. This sticks with her. She relates to what unrequited love feels like, and that makes the lost jogger hard to dismiss as just another missing person. This sort of touch is exactly why female detectives can be such a refreshing change — Freya is drawn into action based on a very simple shot of empathy for the victim, unlike the macho men of True Detective, who are rather heavy-handedly motivated because they see red at the very thought of a woman hurt.
On the other hand, one of the pleasures of hard-boiled mystery novels is the vicarious thrill of reading about detectives behaving badly, from scotch for breakfast to questionable liaisons with murder suspects. If that’s the sort of fun you’re looking for, you won’t find it in The Various Haunts of Men. Detective Freya’s main hobby is singing in the church choir.
The Likeness by Tana French
The first time we meet Cassie Maddox is in Tana French’s first book, In the Woods, where she is homicide co-cop to detective Rob Ryan. In The Likeness (not a sequel), a murdered woman is found who looks exactly like Cassie, and Cassie’s old boss convinces her to go undercover in the woman’s place to tempt the killer into coming out into the open. Operating undercover, this time Cassie is all alone.
Being alone is precarious. Cassie’s ties to the police force, including her boyfriend and her boss, give her a lifeline to reality but don’t prevent her from being seduced by the life of the murdered woman and her isolated, close-knit group of friends. This clique, comprised of former loners, seems to be bound together not because any one is in love with another so much as each are in love with the group as a whole. The lack of conventional one-on-one relationships makes their bond look magical, almost divine. While some loner detectives like True Detective’s Cohle look in sometimes enviously, even longingly, on happy scenes of marriage and children, Cassie, firmly in a relationship, falls for the unromantic connection that holds these people together. She longs to be part of it.
The Likeness is sprawling and rich. Tana French’s novels look forward as they look backward, and are filled with nostalgia for the heady, heightened reality that comes with working a big case. Should True Detective take hints from The Likeness or any other of French’s novels, that would be a thrill for mystery fanatics in and of itself.
At the beginning of each semester, I gather basic information from my fiction writing students such as major, hometown, and favorite book. Some of this arrives from the registrar before the semester begins, but the information isn’t always accurate, and many students accustomed to large, impersonal classes appreciate even perfunctory interest in their lives. My students’ majors are varied, and the students come from all over the world, even at a state university. With few exceptions, their book selections are depressing.
The selections are not depressing because the books are sad. That would be great. I mean depressing as in uninspired, as in the last book the students can remember reading in high school, the book a movie was based on (sometimes they have only seen the movie), the Twilight series or Hunger Games series. Pretty much any series. This semester three students picked Lord of the Flies and three picked Harry Potter, edging “no response” as the most popular titles. It’s not that these books are necessarily bad, though some are. Instead, it’s what these choices suggest to me, that books occupy an ancillary role in the students’ lives. Books are something they had to read in class, or something a movie is based on, a movie everyone else is seeing. The book is rarely the thing the student willingly came to first.
Although my students and I infrequently read the same books, we watch some of the same television shows. We’re more likely to find common ground discussing Breaking Bad than Yiyun Li. If I watched Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, we’d have a lot to talk about because those programs influence their writing more than any author, living or dead. Other influences: CSI (in its various locales), Law and Order (in its various incarnations), True Blood (vampire everything). I’m not trying to be glib or cute. These are the narratives that influence students’ writing. It’s something I need to take seriously.
Who am I to determine what’s good or bad? That’s a reasonable question. Isn’t it my job, as possibly the only creative writing instructor these students will ever have, to place moving stories into their hands, instill the virtues of reading, caution them against the culture’s basest offerings? Yes, gladly. But that’s not the question I find myself asking. The question isn’t even how to teach writing to students who don’t read. The question is how to teach writing to students who watch movies and television instead of reading.
This class, I should note, is an upper-level elective. All of my students arrive voluntarily, and most are upperclassmen. My classes are unfailingly populated with curious young men and women. They’re earnest and respectful and hard-working. I genuinely like them. Every fall and spring there is a waitlist because students want to write stories. What they don’t particularly want to do is read them. Reading literary fiction for the pleasure or edification of reading literary fiction is something very few of my students do.
What they reliably do is watch movies and television. I’m not sure if I’ve encountered a student who doesn’t. When I was in college — this is the last time I’ll allow myself this indulgence — I remember few conversations about television and little time spent watching it. There was a TV in the communal lounge, but it was a shabby space relative to the temptations elsewhere. To be fair, television has improved since I was a student. David Chase’s The Sopranos and David Simon’s The Wire, everyone seems to agree, raised the bar for what a television show could be. One can debate Simon’s characterization of The Wire as a “visual novel,” but for some of my students, it’s the only novel they choose to consume.
I have my students read a lot of stories. I make a point, as most instructors do, to vary the subjects and styles, to include authors of different ages, ethnicities, genders, classes, and backgrounds. Every two years I change all of the stories, so I’m not flying on autopilot. There is no shortage of incredible short fiction. The students digest the stories dutifully. Sometimes students are visibly moved in class, which visibly moves me. These mutually-moved moments don’t happen all of the time. I’ve learned to appreciate them.
When a student really likes a story, she will often compare it to a favorite episode, and then this happens:
“It totally reminds me of the Dexter when he —”
“Oh my God, I’m obsessed with that show.”
(General murmurs of approval.)
“Have you seen the one where he [kills someone in a mildly unpredictable way for morally dubious reasons]?”
“That one is amazing.”
Nobody says she is obsessed with Denis Johnson.
My students love Dexter. I have watched enough episodes to conclude I do not love Dexter, though it’s an interesting case study, as it attempts to communicate the protagonist’s inner life. This is harder to do on the screen than on the page, and while I applaud the show’s writers for taking this aspect seriously, the character’s monologues strike me as clumsy and inorganic. They’re supposed to be funny, but they’re not funny.
I have yet to find a voiceover that doesn’t make me cringe. As great as Vertigo is, the voiceover bums me out every time. I feel like Hitchcock doesn’t trust me — or his filmmaking — enough, and I’m thrown out of what John Gardner calls the “vivid and continuous dream.” If American Hustle wins a bunch of academy awards, it will be in spite of the lazy voiceover.
Good fiction grants you sustained, nuanced entry into a character’s mind that is difficult to achieve on the screen. This is one of the reasons the best books rarely translate into transcendent films, no matter how many times studios try (e.g. The Great Gatsby). It’s also why some of the best films come from books that aren’t universally regarded (e.g. The Godfather). That The Godfather works better as a film than a book doesn’t diminish the story. Film and literature aren’t interchangeable, and watching the former isn’t necessarily going to help you write the latter. Indeed, it may give you some bad habits. In the classroom, I regularly find myself contradicting the students’ first teacher, the screen.
Each Law and Order episode begins with the short dramatization of a crime. Those two minutes set the tone for the rest of the hour. The showrunner makes a contract with the audience before each episode: There will be a crime, it will be investigated, there will be red herrings, but the crime will be solved. Although the characters are more or less the same from episode to episode, the crimes are self-contained. Clearly, this formula works. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t enjoyed an episode of Law and Order. I particularly enjoy the halcyon days of Special Victims Unit with Christopher Meloni, Mariska Hargitay, Ice-T, and BD Wong, whom I regard as a master of deadpan.
What I don’t enjoy are short stories inspired by SVU. Meloni and Hargitay are fine actors, but on the show, their inner lives are straightforward. They’re driven by primal and singular impulses. The world they inhabit offers little complexity. Sex offenders are bad. Detectives are good. Sometimes good people have to do bad things to get bad guys; that’s about as morally ambiguous as the show gets. It also has a fetish for vigilantism that I don’t share.
One of the most common student stories begins with a scene of violence. It’s unclear who is involved, or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Typically, nobody is named. There’s a space break signifying a leap in time and place, and then the story unfolds in a linear fashion. By the end, the villain (easier to spot than the writer imagines) is apprehended, often with a bit of insufferable banter. The story doesn’t work. My students didn’t learn this formula from reading.
I reference the stories we read. Look where Raymond Carver starts his story. What is all of the protagonist’s furniture doing on the front lawn? Why does Mary Robinson have the strange woman stop by the house on the second page? Start the story as late in the action as you can, I tell my students. Make sure your protagonist wants something, even if only a glass of water. I tell them Kurt Vonnegut gave me this advice. Some of them read Slaughterhouse Five in high school. We’re getting somewhere. Did you read any of his other books? Blank stares.
Ideally, the stories I assign and recommend will lead my students to read fiction on their own. Sometimes this happens. They take other classes with me, stop by my office hours, write me emails. Few things make me happier than students from past semesters soliciting books. I hope they’re still writing, but if they’re only reading, they’re enlarging their sense of human experience. They’re becoming more empathetic and, in turn, better brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, boyfriends and girlfriends. I believe this.
Most students I never hear from again. We get fifteen weeks, twice a week, eighty minutes a class. It’s not a lot of time to inspire a lifetime of reading. It’s not a lot of time to give students a framework from which they might begin to construct meaningful stories on their own.
Each student writes two stories for my class, but the time he or she spends thinking about the published stories I assign is arguably more important. Students who haven’t taken many writing or literature classes at the university will likely arrive with few reference points, and I treat each story as an opportunity to teach students about character or structure or language. When students reference television shows, I counter with stories. If the story isn’t protected by copyright, I’ll post a link to Blackboard. Anyone can read Anton Chekhov’s “Gusev” or James Joyce’s “Araby” or Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” for free online. Publishers mail me unsolicited books all of the time; I give the good ones to my students.
Sometimes when students reference television shows, I go with it. I ask students what they like about the show and what, if anything, they might apply to their writing. If I admire the film they reference, and I think it offers something narratively rewarding, we discuss why. Occasionally, I reference a moment in a film, for better or worse. The Third Man delays the introduction of the antagonist in a way that’s supremely effective (it doesn’t hurt that Graham Greene wrote the screenplay). I rather like Lost in Translation, but the scene where Bill Murray whispers something unheard to Scarlett Johansson strikes me as a narrative betrayal. The writer and character, I’ve told them, shouldn’t know more than the reader. Like all teachers, I’m happy when students intelligently disagree.
In their own stories, I encourage students to write something that makes them uncomfortable. If they’re going to write autobiographically, and many do, they have to be prepared to show their worst characteristics. Probably, the protagonist should do something stupid or ugly. That’s what the reader wants. If they’re going to make something up completely, and I encourage this, they have to move beyond formula. If they crib a violent scene from The Walking Dead, I give them Flannery O’Connor. It’s no less gruesome.
My students are curious in my own tastes, to an extent. What do I like to watch? I tell them. I pair the film with a book. They want to know why the book is always better than the movie. They’re referring to Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. They’ve been told this so many times they believe it, even if they don’t see it personally. It’s because your imagination is so much more interesting than what’s on the screen, I tell them. They don’t buy it. Their interest wanes. The reader and the writer co-create the story, I insist. Reading is collaborative in a way that watching a screen isn’t. You prefer your image to the director’s, no matter how beautiful Jennifer Lawrence might be. You’re narcissistic that way. It’s okay.
They nod reluctantly, like maybe it is.