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Words of wisdom from history's greatest female crime writers

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From the doyennes of classic detective fiction to the forgotten writers of female noir and contemporary best-selling authors, women have long brought a certain flair and originality to the genre of crime. 

The likes of Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham were drawing in legions of fans with their compelling roll call of sleuths and murderers long before crime writing was considered a suitable career for the fairer sex, and Agatha Christie's skilfully executed plot twists made her the best-selling novelist of all time.

Crime writing pioneers such as Dorothy B. Hughes and Vera Caspary excelled in the art of "domestic suspense" and the psyche of crime, while authors PD James and Patricia Cornwell pushed the boundaries forward with their grisly and forensic depictions of the nature of violence.

Today female writers saturate the thriller market, with JK Rowling joining Sophie Hannah, Megan Abbott and Laura Lippman and others to send the book charts spinning via a series of darkly imagined plot lines and chilling protagonists. And their crime-writing ancestors paved the way for their success. 

"When I first read Megan Abbott I thought immediately of Dorothy Hughes’ In A Lonely Place," notes crime fiction expert Sarah Weinman. "The DNA of so many of these earlier writers inserted themselves into those writing today, whether they realize it consciously." 

Yet still, the path is not always easy. "There is still a funny notion that women should not write violent fiction," says author Val McDermid. "And yet women more often than not are the victims of sexual violence. So what are we saying - that the ones most likely to experience it should not write about it?"

With Gillian Flynn's best-selling Gone Girl set to hit the big screen this week, we raise a toast to the femme fatales of crime fiction with a look at their advice and insight into the nature of crime and crime writing. 

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Photos: Rex Features and Getty Images

  • Gillian Flynn

    "When I start I don't know a thing, really, other than my very basic premise: wife goes missing on five-year anniversary - something is fishy with the husband - bust aside from that I was figuring out as I went along. I've written three books and never know the ending to any of them.

    I'm always about 30 pages from the end, typing along, thinking, 'Hmmm, I wonder what's going to happen?' Then I figure it out and rewrite accordingly. There are more efficient ways to write, but this one seems so work for me."

    Stylist recommends: Gone Girl

  • Laurie R King

    "I love characters, I revel in place, but invariably I get tangled in the plot sooner or later, and have to hack my way out with a virtual machete.  Nineteen books and I’ve never figured out how to plan ahead. Fiction rests on the details of life -what kind of clothing a person wears, what they eat, how they talk.

    The beauty of crime fiction is that everything that causes passion in a person is grist for the crime writer’s mill."

    Stylist recommends: A Monstrous Regiment Of Women

  • Tana French

    "The thing that attracts me isn't the murder, it's the element of mystery. I've always loved mysteries, real or fictional. I remember reading about the Marie Celeste when I was a kid and becoming obsessed with what happened. That idea of what could be mysterious and start people asking questions – that's how I wound up with crime fiction."

    Stylist recommends: In the Woods

  • PD James

    "Increase your word power. Increase your vocabulary. Words are our raw materials. Practise writing. Read widely, particularly of the best writing. I have been reading crime novels – mostly detective stories – for 80 years, I can spot most of the tricks, particularly those of Agatha Christie."

    Stylist recommends: The Skull Beneath The Skin

  • Margery Allingham

    "Crime writers are a kind of reflection of society's conscience. We observe, report and show what everyone really wants - that violence ought to be stopped and crime doesn't pay. That seems perfectly moral to me."

    Stylist recommends: The Fashion In Shrouds

  • Ruth Rendell

    "Increasingly, I look through books of pictures, the works of old or modern masters, for my characters' faces... it is interesting how a character begins to form itself as one gazes at some marvelously executed portrait. Slyness must lurk behind those eyes surely, cruelty in that thin-lipped mouth, subtlety and finesse revealed by those long thin fingers."

    Stylist recommends: Harm Done

  • Dorothy L Sayers

    "Everybody is, I suppose, either Classic or Gothic by nature. Either you feel in your bones that buildings should be rectangular boxes with lids to them, or you are moved to the marrow by walls that climb and branch, and break into a inflorescence of pinnacles."

    Stylist recommends: Murder Must Advertise

  • Megan Abbott

    "I think for me the voyeurism is the key fascination. Maybe all writers are voyeurs. I’m sure I am. I don’t have my eye to the peephole, not literally at least, but I think I frequently do, in spirit. Likewise, young girls are deeply curious and it often takes different forms than young boys - or at least it did when I was young.

    Boys are perhaps more encouraged to be investigators and explorers, but girls often feel - or at least until we all became SO EMPOWERED! - they have to look sideways at dark things, not head on. Which is frequently what a detective must do, as he’s concealing his true purpose, his true role."

    Stylist recommends: The Fever

  • Mary Higgins Clark

    "Readers identify with my characters. I write about people going about their daily lives, not looking for trouble, who are suddenly plunged into menacing situations. 

    Every book or story should figuratively begin with the words 'once upon a time.' It is true now as it was in the long ago days of wandering minstrels, that when these words are uttered, the room becomes quiet, everyone draws closer to the fire and the magic begins."

    Stylist recommends: I've Got You Under My Skin

  • Gladys Mitchell

    "I suppose I'm an optimist. I would far rather ignore (from cowardice, I think) the seamy side of life. I have only academic knowledge of romance and sex, love to laugh, and hate and detest violence and cruelty. The writing of crime novels is in no way therapeutic to me. I am fascinated by murder because it is about the last thing I would think of committing, apart from blackmail."

    Stylist recommends: Laurels Are Poison

  • Sophie Hannah

    "I know a lot of crime writers feel very underrated, like they're not taken seriously and they want to be just thought of as writers rather than ghettoised as crime writers, but I love being thought of firmly as a crime writer.

    I'm snobby about books that aren't crime fiction: if I start reading a literary novel and there's no mystery emerging in the first few pages I'm like 'Gah, this obviously isn't a proper book, why would I want to carry on reading it?'"

    Stylist recommends: The Monogram Murders

  • Patricia Cornwell

    "What you are going to see as society evolves is a lot less distinction between the crimes males and females commit. Murder is about power and the more powerful women get the more it will change the good that they do and the bad that they do. Equality will change our behaviour. I mean, we tend to do what we can get away with."

    Stylist recommends: Cruel And Unusual

  • Sara Paretsky

    "I wanted a woman who could be a whole person, which meant that she could be a sexual person without being evil. That she could be an effective problem solver, as women are in reality but not very often in fiction or on the screen. And that who she was sexually had nothing to do with it, except that it made her more fully human.

    It just took me quite a long time to come up with a way of being able to do that. And the courage, really, to try and do it at all. So I was writing a crime novel not to have a great series but just to see whether I could actually write a whole book." 

    Stylist recommends: Breakdown

  • Anna Katharine Green

    "Don’t hurry your ideas. I always let my ideas lie fallow for some time, and then suddenly, perhaps in a day, the beginning and end will come to me. If there is any part that might be called misty, it will be in the middle of my story. The end is always clear before I begin my book."

    Stylist recommends: The Leavenworth Case

  • Val McDermid

    "There is still a funny notion that women should not write violent fiction and yet women more often than not are the victims of sexual violence. So what are we saying - that the ones most likely to experience it should not write about it?"

    Stylist recommends: The Wire In The Blood

  • Agatha Christie

    "Crime is terribly revealing. Try and vary your methods as you will, your tastes, your habits, your attitude of mind, and your soul is revealed by your actions."

    Stylist recommends: Murder On The Orient Express

  • Kathy Reichs

    "What gives my books authenticity is that I actually do what it is I'm writing about. I think the fact that I am in the autopsy room, I go to the crime scene and I do work in the lab gives my books this flavor that otherwise they wouldn't have."

    Stylist recommends: Deja Dead

  • Sue Grafton

    "I think with the mystery novel you have to know where you're going, but not in any great detailed sense. I generally know whodunit, who died, and what the motive for the crime was. Then I have to figure out what I call the angle of attack. In other words, how do you cut into the story? Where does the story begin? What's relevant in that first line or paragraph from the reader's point of view?"

    Stylist recommends: W Is For Wasted

  • Laura Lippman

    "Raymond Chandler said that the difference between literary fiction and crime fiction is that the ordinary mystery gets published and the ordinary literary novel does not. I don't think that's true anymore. I love my genre. Why would I want to transcend it? Why would I want to break out of it? It's a big territory, but the really interesting work is being done at the borderlands."

    Stylist recommends: After I'm Gone

  • Patricia Highsmith

    "I can't write if someone else is in the house, not even the cleaning woman. I like to work for four or five hours a day. I aim for seven days a week. I have no television - I hate it. I listen to the BBC World Service starting at 2 in the morning until 4. I switch off the light and listen in bed.I don't set the alarm to get up. I get up when I feel like it."

    Stylist recommends: The Talented Mr Ripley

  • Sara Gran

    "The key to noir is you make one wrong turn and you’re in a whole different world, with different rules, and you’re got to try to stay alive.

    The detective is the person who can navigate all of these different worlds; the detective is not scared by what she finds in the world of chaos, but also not scared of or intimidated by the 'above ground' world of law and order. Most people are trapped in one or the other, right?"

    Stylist recommends: Claire DeWitt And The Bohemian Highway

  • JK Rowling

     [On her Cormoran Strike series] "I enjoy the golden age (crime) book. That's very much what I was trying to do with these books – to take that finite number of suspects – the genuine whodunnit style, but make it very contemporary, make it up to date and make sure this is a credible person and a credible back story."

    Stylist recommends: The Silkworm

  • Janet Evanovich

    "I had done 12 little romance books, and I decided I wanted to move into crime fiction. I saw the movieMidnight Run with Charles Grodin and Robert De Niro, and I thought what a cool idea. I didn’t know anything about bail bonds or bounty hunters, but I liked the idea of it. The series really grew from there.

    I set it in Jersey because I’m a Jersey girl, and it was what I knew. I created this character that had some of me in it, some of my daughter—all of the bits and pieces of the heroines in my romance novels that I really loved."

    Stylist recommends: Explosive Eighteen

  • Margaret Millar

    "The world of maps is nice and flat and simple. It has areas for people and areas for monsters. What a shock it is to discover the world is round and the areas merge and nothing separates the monsters and ourselves; that we are all whirling around in space together and there isn't even a graceful way of falling off."

    Stylist recommends: Beast In View

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