Long Reads

Can the crime genre ever be feminist?

Posted by
Caroline Carpenter
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The question of whether the crime genre can be feminist still feels relevant – especially given how often we see women portrayed as victims of horrific crimes on our screens, in books and in magazines, freelance writer Caroline Carpenter argues

Earlier this year, screenwriter Bridget Lawless, “so fed up with the endless depictions of violence against women”, set up the Staunch Book Prize to recognise thriller novels in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered. The new award has been criticised by some, including author Sophie Hannah, for discouraging crime fiction that “tackles violence against women head-on” – but whether the Staunch Book Prize is the best way to deal with the problem of violence against women in the media or not, it’s clear that women are looking to reclaim the narrative around crime.

Two women doing just that are Emma Hardy and Grace Harrison, the founders of new quarterly true crime magazine Foul Play. The true crime fans met while working in the magazine industry, coming up with the idea for Foul Play when they realised there was a gap in the market for the kind of non-sensationalist magazine they would want to read themselves. Their mission is to create a contemporary true crime magazine that is not gory or exploitative.

“It’s for people who are interested in crime, but not for those wanting to revel in someone’s misfortune,” Hardy says. “Whenever we come up with an idea for a story we discuss whether there are any conflicts that might make running it distasteful; a piece needs to be interesting without appealing to people’s morbid fascination with death, horror and crime.”

Harrison adds: “We’re never going to publish a crime scene photo or serial killer cover star. Instead, we’re going to focus on long-form features, beautiful photography and lots of advice on what our readers should be reading, watching and listening to. Foul Play is for discerning true crime fans.”

The first issue of the magazine, available to buy on the Foul Play website, was published in January, including reviews of true crime podcasts, films and books and short light-hearted articles, as well as thoughtful, longer features. Hardy and Harrison wrote many of the stories themselves, also enlisting the help of friends. “We’re focusing on a wide variety of crime and it really is a subject that affects everyone, so there’s been no shortage of interesting content,” said Harrison.

Pieces have already included Swedish author and crime journalist Ann Törnkvist sharing her experience of going into hiding after receiving threats from the gangster she was writing a book on, and a photo story by an ex-prisoner about the beautiful envelopes he decorated in prison. The magazine also features recurring items, such as the ‘Foul Playlist’ – songs that are based on real crimes.

The response to the magazine so far has been positive. “We’ve had some really great feedback from both the publishing community and true crime fans,” says Harrison. “There are definitely a lot of people who are interested in the subject, but feel like they want to read something that is less sensational.” Hardy adds: “We’ve reached our target audience, and even some people who don’t normally like the true crime genre but found our articles interesting.”

The second issue of Foul Play is due out at the end of April and will be themed around nature, with one feature focusing on botanical thefts in Kew Gardens. “We like taking stories that are surprising and that people don’t necessarily associate with true crime,” Hardy explains.

The Foul Play team’s hope is to keep growing the magazine’s readership and, once they have a stable audience, to expand into other areas as well. Harrison says: “We have some exciting plans for events, a podcast and a true crime book club, which is starting next month. It’s a really exciting time for the genre so we’re looking to support and champion that.”

When it comes to the explosion of interest in true crime in the last few years, Harrison says: “I think lots of people have a fascination with crime, but it used to feel like something you’d keep a bit of a secret. Now, with the boom in genre-defining podcasts like Serial, S-Town and My Favourite Murder, it’s made a move towards the mainstream.”

The cover of Foul Play’s first issue

Another change, the pair say, has been the growth of female-friendly forms of true crime media available. Though historically the genre was associated with the exploitation and sexualisation of women, according to Harrison “that’s not the case anymore”. She explains: “There are so many brilliant true crime podcasts and books being created by women that I think women feel a lot more catered for. There has been a real shift, and women are reclaiming the narrative.”

Hardy and Harrison point to examples of female-led true crime podcasts – All Killa and No Filla, from comedians Rachel Fairburn and Kiri Pritchard, and They Walk Among Us, which centres on obscure crimes and is created by husband and wife team Rosie and Benjamin. In terms of contemporary true crime books from female authors, Harrison recommends I’ll be Gone in the Dark (Faber & Faber), a mesmerising account of author Michelle McNamara’s obsessive search for the Golden State Killer, and The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (Macmillan), a mix of raw memoir and gripping murder investigation.

Rachel Fairburn and Kiri Pritchard, hosts of All Killa and No Filla

When considering the draw of true crime, especially as a woman, she admits that “for many of my female friends, there’s a self-preservation element to its appeal.”

“Lots of the crimes we hear about happen to women. Learning about the terrible fate of these (very often) female victims helps us to feel like we might prevent something like this happening to ourselves,” she says.

More generally, there’s the fact that “with crime, the truth is normally scarier and weirder than fiction; there are so many amazing stories when you start looking”. Foul Play aims to both share these stories with its readers, and prove that the crime genre can be feminist along the way, too.

Images: Foul Play  / All Killa and No Filla