The Hierarchy of Victims in Crime Writing
Eva Dolan is an Essex-based copywriter and intermittently successful poker player. Shortlisted for the Crime Writers' Association Dagger for unpublished authors when she was just a teenager, the first novels in her series starring two detectives from the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit, Long Way Home and Tell No Tales were published to widespread critical acclaim. Tell No Tales was shortlisted for the Theakston's Crime Novel of the Year and the third in the series, After You Die, was longlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger.
In her new novel, Watch her Disappear, a series of violent attacks on trans women is followed by the murder of Corinne Sawyer, born Colin Sawyer. The pressure is on as tensions run high and the police force find themselves under national scrutiny...
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Eva Dolan discusses the hierarchy of victims in crime writing and why rage can provide a fine impetus for a crime novel.
Author image © Mark Vessey
We've put to bed by now the tired old cliché about 'write what you know', haven't we? If authors stuck to writing from direct experience you'd be swamped with books about where to buy the best pyjamas, how many cups of coffee you can drink before you get palpitations and the most effective hangover cures. (Toast, brandy and raw garlic.)
For anyone embarking on a career in crime writing the better advice is to 'write what enrages you'. Crime is a genre which gives you the best opportunity to dig into the darkest areas of life, the most reprehensible things a person can do or a society can sanction. For me, the Zigic and Ferreira series, set in a Hate Crimes department, has been a way to explore an issue that makes my blood boil in real life and in fiction - the hierarchy of victims.
How many books have you picked up which begin with the murder or disappearance of a beautiful, young woman? Dozens? Hundreds? 80% of them? Because the author knows it's a quick way to engage your emotions. You see your sister or your daughter in that woman and you want her to be avenged. Because things like that shouldn't happen to someone like her.
The Zigic and Ferreira series has been an attempt to challenge readers into questioning who they care about and why their sympathies lie in certain directions, investigating crimes perpetrated against those who’ve been pushed to the margins of British society. And, who, in reality, are rarely prioritised when the worst happens.
With Long Way Home, the victim was a homeless migrant worker, squatting in a garden shed. Not a sympathetic victim initially but writing about how he came to be there allowed me to open up the hidden world of illegal gangmasters and the exploitation of their workers, a group often vilified in the press and hated by the local communities they settle in. Reaction from readers was mixed and fairly evenly balanced between shock that such high levels of abuse and violence exist in modern Britain, and accusations of racism against the white working class because I presented a group of people who had been comprehensively 'othered' as fully realised human beings.
In After You Die the murdered woman was not beautiful, not brilliant, not wealthy, just an ordinary single mother struggling with the tough hand fate had dealt her. And she wasn't sympathetic, not entirely, because nobody is. Dawn and her severely disabled daughter Holly, were people at the margins of society, living a housebound existence, worrying about money and their precarious futures. The kind of people currently being called 'scroungers' and accused of benefit fraud, Channel Five poverty porn fodder. Maybe that's why disabled characters still don't feature very often in crime fiction, because we've been conditioned, as a society, to shrink back from disability, seeing it as a contagious taint or an outright lie, something on some level, which is shameful.
Interestingly, readers were far more emotionally invested in Dawn and Holly Prentice than they were in the migrant workers and asylum seekers in the first two books of the series. And, I think, this gets to the core of the hierarchy of victims problem – the victims in Long Way Home and Tell No Tales were less relatable and, ultimately, of lower dramatic value, because they were just too different to engage with.
'If they don't look like me, why should I care?' I’m not sure how conscious people are of making this calculation. I’m not sure if it’s innate or learned, and I don’t really care, because regardless of what underpins the prioritising of WASPy victims over everyone else, it can and should be challenged and writers should be actively reflecting social diversity in their work, rather than keeping things nice and safe and conservative.
The latest book, Watch Her Disappear, centres around another challenging and unsympathetic victim, a charming but selfish man who has transitioned into a charming but selfish woman after a lifetime of hiding her true nature. Corinne has many of the trappings of a classic crime novel murderee; a beautiful home, a successful business, lovely things and good friends. But coming from the trans community she - like her real life counterparts - is harassed and maligned, loved and hated in equal measure within her own family, where her decision to transition has created powerful emotional ructions.
In reality, trans people are so low down on the hierarchy of victims that police and press often don't even afford them the respect of using their chosen pronouns after their deaths. Meaning a transwoman can be murdered and the crime reported like she didn't even exist. That is a level of erasure beyond any other I can think of and what provided the initial spark of rage which propelled me through Watch Her Disappear.
It takes roughly a year to write a crime novel, from first line to final edit that is a lot of time to be immersed in a fake world at the expense of other things you could be doing, so for me there needs to be a purpose beyond entertainment. At the end of that year I need to be able to look back and feel I've helped explore an issue or raised awareness of a problem more usually ignored. It's a humble form of assistance but I'm proud of the righteous liberal anger at the heart of the Zigic and Ferreira series. I hope that in some, small way, they've exposed the prejudice within the hierarchy of victims and the society it reflects.