Spanning the 1930s to present day, ‘After Agatha’ charts the explosion in women’s crime writing and examines key developments on both sides of the Atlantic: from the women writers at the helm of the UK Golden Age and their American and Canadian counterparts fighting to be heard, to the 1980s experimental trio, Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton, who created the first female PIs, and the more recent emergence of forensic crime writing and domestic noir thrillers such as ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘Apple Tree Yard’.
After Agatha examines the diversification of crime writing and highlights landmark
women’s novels which featured the marginalised in society as centralised characters. Cline also explores why women readers are drawn to the genre and seek out justice in crime fiction, in a world where violent crimes against women rarely have such resolution.
The book includes interviews with dozens of contemporary authors such as Ann Cleeves, Sophie Hannah, Tess Gerritsen and Kathy Reichs and features the work of hundreds of women crime and mystery writers.
If you’ve followed The Shelf for a while, you’ll probably be able to guess that I’m a keen reader of both classic and contemporary crime fiction. Whilst I’ve definitely started to reach saturation point with some of its subgenres (yes, I’m looking at you psychological thrillers and domestic noir), I continue to find the genre endlessly fascinating – and it appears I’m not alone.
As Sally Cline observes in After Agatha: Women Write Crime, women are, increasingly, both the main producers and the main consumers of crime fiction: a somewhat surprising fact when you consider that many crime novels involve violent acts being conducted to and against female victims. So what exactly is it that draws so many women to produce and consume crime fiction?
To answer this question, Cline has spoken with an impressive number of female crime writers who came ‘after Agatha’, including well-known US, UK and Canadian names such as Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Sophie Hannah, and Ann Cleeves. In doing so, she charts the production and consumption of crime fiction from its genesis in the ‘golden age’ right up to the genre’s present-day popularity, examining the trends – and tribulations – it has experienced along the way.
As you might expect from a book based primarily around interviews, After Agatha has a lively, anecdotal style. This works well, for the most part, although there were moments when I wanted Cline – who has clearly conducted extensive research for the book – to take a little more time to critically analyse what was being said. Whilst I loved reading about why some of my favourite authors read and enjoyed crime fiction – and why they chose to write it – I didn’t always feel that the larger question of why women produced and consumed so much crime fiction was being answered.
I was also a little disappointed that novels featuring black and disabled protagonists were thrown together into one chapter/category, and that the increasing diversity of crime fiction – both in terms of protagonists, writers, and readers – was not more widely reflected. Whilst I understand that Cline cannot include – indeed, cannot have read – everything, it felt as if there was more to be said about the specific and individualised marginalisation of both black writers/protagonists and disabled writers/protagonists and, specifically, about the way in which publishing has, until very recently, limited opportunities for writers wishing to tell these particular stories.
That said, I was otherwise impressed by the range of UK, US, and Canadian crime writing that is covered in After Agatha. Other chapters discuss female private detectives, serial-killer novels, domestic noir, and the rise of women in forensic science. And although Cline has to occasionally generalise and adopt the stance of the ‘everywoman’, I felt she did a good job of distinguishing the many and varied reasons why women might wish to write and read crime fiction.
Crime fiction aficionados may not agree with all of Cline’s assertions and findings – indeed, I myself sometimes thought some of the arguments were a little stretched (for example, whilst it is true that Robert Galbraith’s books sold considerably more once their author was revealed to be J.K Rowling, I suspect this was less to do with Rowling’s gender and more to do with Harry Potter mega-fans reading anything she wrote, regardless of gender or genre) – but that does not detract from the enjoyment they’ll get from reading and engaging in the debates Cline opens up.
For those new to the genre, After Agatha offers an excellent – and reasonably extensive – overview of the variety and breadth of UK, US and Canadian crime fiction written by women, and would operate well as a ‘reading list’ for those seeking to expand their reading. The writer interviews are fascinating and Cline has an accessible yet intelligent writing style.
Sally Cline clearly has a deep passion for – and knowledge of – her subject matter and, in After Agatha, she has written a lively and interesting exploration of the genre, suitable for both avid crime fiction readers and for those seeking to increase their knowledge and expand their reading list. It would make a fantastic read for a crime fiction book club to discuss – and provides a detailed overview for anyone seeking to know more about the women who write, and read, crime.
After Agatha: Women Write Crime by Sally Cline is published by Oldcastle Books and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour finishes today but you can go back and check out the other stops for more reviews and content!
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