Why We Kill: A Discussion with Female Crime Authors
by Hannah Mary McKinnon
Last year I had the pleasure of attending Bouchercon, the annual world mystery convention where crime fiction lovers gather to discuss all things books. Out of the many panels I went to, the one that stuck with me the most was the all-female “Who We Kill and Why.” The discussions about each author’s choices fascinated me. Forty-five minutes wasn’t nearly long enough, so I caught up with Kimberly Belle, Emily Carpenter, E.C. Diskin, Karen Katchur, Laura McHugh, and Mindy Mejia—six powerful, bestselling, and award-winning women—and dug a little deeper into the reasons behind their murderous ways.
1. Hannah Mary McKinnon (HM): What is it about crime that interests you enough to want to write about it?
Emily Carpenter (EC): I love the whole psychological aspect of a person trying to figure out who committed the crime, or is about to commit a crime, without coming right out and asking questions like a detective would, but more with insight and intuition.
Kimberly Belle (KB): I am fascinated not so much with the crime itself, but the psychological aspects of why people commit one. What led them to do something so awful they have to lie to cover it up? What motivated them? And as the story unfolds, I love watching them dig themselves an even deeper hole, especially with the people who love and trust them most.
Laura McHugh (LM): In addition to the psychological aspect that Emily and Kimberly mentioned, crimes are like puzzles to me, and I hate to see a puzzle go unsolved. I’m often inspired by cold cases because I can’t stop thinking of ways the crime might have unfolded. I want to figure out what happened, and the victim deserves for the truth to be unraveled.
Karen Katchur (KK:): It’s the same for me. I write about crime in order to explore the why. Why do we, as a society, often resort to violence? Why do we continue to hurt each other? And, like Laura said, it’s a puzzle I want to solve. Also, it’s a way for me to assuage my fears about violence. I lean into that fear when I’m writing, and I control the outcome. Making sure justice is served one way or another is hugely satisfying.
E.C. Diskin (ED): I agree with all of these points, so I guess I’ll just add that, sometimes, I’m drawn to write about an issue that might, on its face, have nothing to do with violence, but as I figure out how to write a compelling, page-turning tale, it naturally becomes what could be called a crime story. Nothing ups the stakes like life and death consequences.
2. (HM): Do you typically kill off the men or the women in your novels, or are you an equal opportunist?
(KB): I typically come at a story from a female POV (point of view), which means if it’s not violence committed against my women characters, there’s some kind of great betrayal. My stories concentrate on relationships—parent/child, siblings, spouses—a tight type of bond that makes the betrayal hit even harder.
(MM): I skew slightly male in my body counts, but gender is normally a secondary consideration, a 30,000-foot revision question. When I’m writing I’m more interested in the victim’s character and agency, giving them enough resources and power to determine their own fates. Sometimes they make it out alive. Sometimes they don’t intend to survive.
(KK): Well, I’ve written four novels and in every one of them I’ve killed men. I didn’t plan to only kill men. I didn’t even realize it until someone pointed it out to me. So like Mindy, gender wasn’t a consideration. I just wrote the stories I wanted to tell. That said, my fifth novel has a female body count.
(ED): I guess I’m an equal opportunity killer. I never gave it much consideration, but as I look back, both men and women have killed and been killed.
3. (HM): With so much crime against women in the world, why make them suffer in your novels, too?
(EC): It’s oddly satisfying to solve crimes and right wrongs in a world that can be so infuriatingly unjust.
(KB): My stories are realistic, and they reflect what’s happening in the world. That’s the appeal of the genre, I think, that readers read it and think, this could have happened to me.
(MM): I agree with Kimberly. We’re not writing fantasy. We live in a world where it’s often acceptable for women to suffer, and our responsibility as writers is to help people reject that cultural acceptance, and examine misogynistic violence on a deeper and more personal scale.
(KK): I agree with Emily, Kimberly and Mindy. We’re finally reading/writing about the side of the victim, the victim’s families, and I love that women are taking control of their own narratives. It’s so refreshing to read about crime from a woman’s perspective, since we’re often the ones on the receiving end. It’s relatable. It’s real.
(ED): I agree. It’s realistic for bad things to happen to women, particularly at the hands of men, but I also like to portray women as heroes more than just victims. That’s the reality too and it’s nice to write about women fighting back, getting even, saving the day, killing the bad guy, solving the murders, etc.
4. (HM): How has #MeToo influenced your work?
(KB): One of my characters In Three Days Missing was inspired by the #MeToo story of a very dear friend. It’s a fictionalized story crafted around a real-life one, and writing it helped me sort through all the emotions I felt, the sadness and helplessness and anger, while watching my friend go through hers.
(MM): The book I’m finishing now is the first I’ve written since the #MeToo movement began and it’s taken a very subversive point of view. I can’t say more without spoilers. Ask me again in a year when it’s out.
(KK): My next book, Cold Woods, was actually written before the #MeToo movement, and it’s finally coming out in 2019. So I guess you could say these issues have been on my mind for a long time. It centers around domestic violence and sexual abuse in the eighties, when there was very little protection for victims. It’s also about friendship and how strong women can be when they stick together, especially when confronted with extraordinary circumstances.
(ED): Desperate Paths, out in March, definitely has #MeToo issues, though like Karen’s Cold Woods, that story began before the movement. My guess is that we’ve all been exploring these issues long before it became a hashtag, simply because sexual harassment and/or sexual assault are realities that every woman on the planet knows and understands—whether personally or not. Actually, as I look back at my books, there are elements, at least in passing, of sexually-charged dangerous behavior—whether feared or experienced—in every story I’ve written because that’s a woman’s life, whether she’s in a parking lot, a bar, or at an office holiday party.
5. (HM): How do you think male and female authors approach the subject of murder?
(KB): As I’ve mentioned before, I love stories that explore the killer’s relationships and motivations, and some of my all-time favorites were written by women. To me, women authors just seem to dig deeper into the psychological whys, which are far more interesting to me than the hows.
(ED): I’m not sure I can answer this because I’ve read a few books by men in the genre, but not enough to generalize. I read a ton of badass women authors (like EC, KB, KK, MM, LM, HM)!
6. (HM): How do you think female crime authors are perceived vs. male crime authors?
(EC): I think women rule in the suspense genre! So many incredibly talented, smart, savvy authors who are writing the best, most innovative books are women.
(KB): I agree with Emily, but I also think that all genres suffer from a male-dominated industry. Yes, women are writing great books, but so much talent gets overlooked just because the author’s name is female.
(LM): I think male crime writers often get better covers, ones that might appeal to both male and female readers. Not many thrillers by men have a woman in a red coat on the cover, or the back of a woman’s head—or the back of a man’s head, for that matter. Books are often judged by their covers, and it’s unfortunate if some readers are deterred by covers that are unnecessarily feminized.
(MM): I agree with Laura. So much of perception is marketing, and women tend to be packaged and marketed differently than men. I’ve also met male authors who’ve struggled to break into psychological and domestic suspense, two sub-genres that female authors are perceived to dominate.
(ED): I think whatever the perceptions were, they’re rapidly changing. Women—including my fellow responders here—are taking the industry by storm, but we all have to fight the marketing machines and label-makers.
7. (HM): Do any of your experiences influence what you write about?
(EC): My critique partners tell me I’m always writing about nature trying to kill people, which basically reveals the truth that I am not outdoorsy in the least. I write a lot about the south and religion and difficult mother/daughter relationships. Hmm.
(KB): All my experiences influence what I write about, whether consciously or unconsciously. I’m always hearing from family and friends that they recognize me in my stories.
(LM): Same as Kimberly, there are bits and pieces of myself in each of my novels. My most recent book was partly inspired by the unexplained death of my brother; writing about it allowed me to solve a mystery that I can’t solve in real life.
(KK): Absolutely. I’ve seen three dead bodies outside of funeral homes: a drowning, auto accident, and a murder victim. Also, I grew up around law enforcement.
(ED): I have recently realized just how autobiographical writing thrillers and mysteries can be! I used to think I just had a wild imagination, but I often find (after a draft is complete) that I’m deeply embedded in the story, either in the characters or in the issues or worries.
8. (HM): Is there anything you consider too dark to read or write about?
(KB): I’ve written about abuse, missing children, and murder, so…no? But I do tend to choose subjects where I can work towards a bright spot, not necessarily a happily ever after, but I want the reader to get the feeling that my main character will be okay.
(LM): So far, no. I don’t think any topic is off-limits, but it really depends on how the subject matter is approached and depicted.
(MM): I don’t do horror or gore, anything that relies on death as spectacle or entertainment.
(KK): I’m not sure. I’ll let you know if I come across anything that’s too dark for me. It hasn’t happened, yet!
(ED): I can handle most subjects, but there are certainly acts of violence I would rather never imagine or have a reader imagine. If a killer is particularly twisted or gruesome, I’m certainly not going to entertain his/her point of view and I’m not going to remind readers of the details again and again. I’m trying to keep readers up at night, but I’m not trying to give anyone nightmares
9. (HM): Any stereotypes in crime writing that drive you crazy?
(KB): I don’t know about stereotypes, but it is getting harder and harder to stay current and fresh. Where is this genre going next? It’s a constant struggle.
(LM): I occasionally come across crime novels where the supporting characters are undeveloped stereotypes who only show up to serve the hero’s needs—devoted wife, meek secretary, horny waitress. I love character-driven crime fiction, so I tend to put books with flat characters aside.
(MM): Can we be done with the detective haunted by a secret from his past? It’s 2019. Get Talkspace [Online Therapy]. Figure that out before you reluctantly take on your next big case.
10. (HM): How do you feel about deliberately writing unlikeable women? Ever worried it’ll turn the reader off?
(EC): I’ve had people tell me my characters should be more likable. But I find them immensely likable. Not sweet necessarily, but interesting.
(MM): Likeable is a giant catch-all net of a word, isn’t it? What do we mean when we say likable when we hit that like button on a post, or tell someone we liked this character and disliked that one? We could be talking about relatability, about charisma, about strength, humor, or daring. I wish we could strip ‘like’ from our vocabularies and get to the heart of what really attracts or repels us, and why those criteria tend to change with a character’s gender. For my part, I never worry about writing traditionally likable characters, whether men or women, as long as they are compelling. My characters aren’t friendly, but they’re strong. They navigate tumultuous worlds with cores of steel and unique—sometimes highly skewed—definitions of right and wrong.
(ED): Agree… I was told recently to consider softening a character because it seemed that everyone was un-likable, and the reader needed at least one person to cheer for. I understood her point, but I wasn’t sure she was giving the reader enough credit. To me, just because a character makes choices that might be ‘immoral’ or ‘unethical’ to someone, doesn’t mean I discard her or the book. In fact, it makes me want to understand her. I’d rather have a book full of interesting and complicated people. I’ll keep reading as long as I’m curious about where the story is going.
11. (HM): Do you think you’ll ever write something lighter…a romance, perhaps?
(EC): I’m dying to write a romance and a paranormal and also a legal thriller, but I’m not a lawyer so that one is going to be tough.
(KB): Not anytime soon. I am a literary adrenaline junkie, and I’m not sure I could slow myself down enough to work on something else. I love writing—and reading—suspense.
(LM): Not likely. Darkness comes naturally to me. When I started writing, people would ask if I wanted to write children’s books—probably because I was a stay-at-home mom with two young girls—but no one asks that now, after reading my work.
(MM): Is dystopian noir fantasy lighter? Then, yes.
(KK): Probably not. I’m a big fan of ghost stories, though, so I’d like to give that a try.
(ED): I might write another legal thriller, but otherwise, I think this shoe fits. Like KB, I need a certain pace to keep me focused—as a reader and writer—and I find that in thrillers/mysteries/suspense/crime.
Find out more about each author and their latest novels:
Kimberly Belle (KB): – Dear Wife (June 25, 2019): www.kimberlybellebooks.com
Emily Carpenter (EC): – Until the Day I Die (March 12, 2019): www.emilycarpenterauthor.com
EC Diskin (ED): – Desperate Paths (March 19, 2019): www.ecdiskin.com
Karen Katchur (KK): – Cold Woods (August 13, 2019): www.karenkatchur.com
Laura McHugh (LM): – The Wolf Wants In (August 6, 2019): www.lauramchughbooks.com
Mindy Mejia (MM): – Leave No Trace (out now): www.mindymejia.com
Hannah Mary McKinnon was born in the UK, grew up in Switzerland and moved to Canada in 2010. After a successful career in recruitment, she quit the corporate world in favor of writing. Hannah’s third novel Her Secret Son, releases May 28, 2019. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter @HannahMMcKinnon, and Instagram @HannahMaryMcKinnon. For more, visit www.HannahMaryMcKinnon.com