FranksWrite: creating strong female characters in crime fiction

CharityDaggarA new series of hard-hitting crime-thriller novels began last autumn with ‘A Last Act Of Charity’ by author Frank Westworth. Unusually, the first woman we meet isn’t some simpering victim – instead she’s one of the killing sisters, the hand which wields a bloody blade with fatal efficiency. Not the normal opening chapter, even for the most hard-boiled books of the genre. So we nailed the author to a chair (not entirely literally) to find out how he came to construct this unusual fictional world of psychopathic killers and their equally sociopathic hunters…

Although your trilogy of crime-thrillers feature a male protagonist, JJ Stoner, and plenty of male sparring partners, the books themselves are named after three sisters, starting with ‘A Last Act Of Charity’. Why did you choose to make the women the focus of attention rather than the more traditional male character?

‘The simple truth? OK. I find women far more interesting than men. I am a traditional unreconstructed bloke; women are an endless personal fascination. Not always attractive, but the most interesting real people are rarely men, in my real world. The books – all three of them – are actually entirely dependent on the female characters; the strongest characters are the women. That said, there is a balance between the sexes, although I think a fiction scribbler has a duty to tilt those balances all over the shop to see what ends up where.

‘And there’s another thing. I’m a man; trying hard to understand anyone else sufficiently well to write about them is difficult enough, and is always hugely rewarding. Trying that same exercise when the character / person is a woman is much more of a challenge. Hard work, too, but remarkably rewarding.

‘And another thing? Some of the best books about men are written by women. I occasionally read a book written by a woman about a male character and go ‘Really? Really! OK…’ and that is rare in a book written about men by a man. They are mostly just R&R, no thinking required.’

Are any of the women in ‘Charity’ based on real people?

‘All of them and none of them. That’s a trite answer, so… In general, most fictional characters are based either on the author or on people the author knows. Truly self-obsessive writers believe that they themselves are the most interesting people in the whole world and write books sharing their own personal wonderfulness with The Reader. Mostly, these are extremely dull, in my view. Most people are dull, generally, but anyone you personally find truly interesting will have an individual set of characteristics which spark that interest. For example, although I’ve never knowingly known any female contract killers, I have known at least one male example of the species. So I took that side of him and transplanted it into the two sisters who’re identified in Charity’s book.

‘Bili The Bass is real, the dirty blonde is real. They may not be themselves, but they are real. One of my closest friends for a couple of years was a working girl, or ‘ho’ as Americans put it. She wasn’t American, though she lived in Norwich and did a decent amount of trade with Americans stationed in East Anglia.’

Where did the sisters’ names come from?

‘They’re all attributes, like superheroes are supposed to be graced with. So – I need to be careful here, because it would be too easy to spoil the third book – I wanted to write about the attributes. Charity in the first book; Chastity in the second, Charm in the third. Also Quaker Victorian parents were imaginative in the names they gave their offspring, and I wanted to consider that. It’s not original; think Temperance Brennan in the Kathy Reichs books, for example. At first, they were going to be nicknames, but that fell by one of many waysides. That said, fiction being fictional and illogically impermanent, they may enjoy resurrection.

‘They also have no surnames. Did you notice that? It’s also deliberate.’

Explicit sexual encounters feature quite heavily in ‘Charity’. Do you think these scenes will appeal more to the male or female readers?

‘I don’t know, is a typically limp answer. What has surprised me is that of the readers to date, who’ve been roughly female / male in equal proportion, all the woman have commented favourably on the most vivid sex scenes. Most of the men have been embarrassed. Go figure. Remember that at this point only invited friends have read the book, which will skew things a lot, as we’re all of us selective about who we allow as ‘friends’. Aren’t we? The whole world is not Facebook’s world.

‘One female reader sent me an email on the subject saying ‘Those were the days…’ and sighing etherically. A male reader, over a beer, asked ‘Do things like that really happen?’ I assured him that they do. ‘Damn,’ he said. ‘Left it too late.’

You seem to give your female characters quite a hard time. One is an unapologetic prostitute, another a lovelorn alcoholic and a third is a licentious groupie, while the mysterious sisters are psychopathic killers with all kinds of weird kinks. Doesn’t this leave you open to the accusation that you’re exploiting your female characters for the titillation of a male readership?

‘No! The opposite. Exactly the opposite. As I said above, the call-girl is based on a one-time good friend who was one; she was saving the cash (her remuneration was all cash, mysteriously) to open a toy shop. Some of her views of men were cripplingly, horribly accurate. And her views of most women were worse. She loathed how judgemental women were, and how weak were most men. Charity’s book displays the weaknesses – and they’re many – of men, if anything. Women are far more capable manipulators, speaking very generally.

‘I think that a lot of men will find the women in Charity’s world more uncomfortable than exploited, if they think about them at all; more threatening than exploited. And exploitation – your word – works both ways. Social interactions are mainly methods of balancing the mutual exploitation, which is what life is, unless we’re all becoming Zen masters or Bodhisattvas.’

Who do you think is smarter, JJ Stoner (the book’s male lead) or his girlfriend, the dirty blonde?

‘They’re much the same. Their goals are different. They aim to make them parallel, to establish a basis for a shared future, but they can’t. They diverge. Both are proud and arrogant; neither is empathic. They have so little in common that their relationship can only be either explosive as their sexual chemistry ignites them (well, him certainly; how would we know about her?), or mutually destructive in every other area of their lives. They both aim for entirely different things, as is the case with many couples, and they talk at cross purposes, again, as do many couples. Neither is more smart than the other. They are both badly damaged – in different ways – for the same yet opposite reasons.

‘They are both – and this is key – for hire, but neither is for sale.’

There’s at least one scene which includes graphic violence towards one of the female characters. Was that hard to write? Why did you feel it necessary to include it?

‘Several reasons. I needed to set up the denouement, so that anyone sufficiently interested by the end of the book and who says ‘Oh, that’s unfair, you misled me…’ can refer back and see that I did not mislead more than an author should, to entertain and tease. It was easy to write. In the scene you refer to, a man beats up on a woman. He’s paying her to beat her up. He’s buying sex from her and the violence is part of what he needs for sexual pleasure. And her reaction? She knew what was coming; she’s been there before with the same guy. She just laughs at him. He can push her as far as she will allow, no further, and they both know this. The male character loses out at every level in the transaction. When their business is complete, as defined by his climax, he feel squalid, defeated, self-loathing, and she does not. She knows how it works; once his own lust is satisfied, he hates himself.

‘The scene was also essential because it makes a much later scene more unbelievable.  Would a call girl really set up home with a customer? Would she? Really?’

Why are so many of your female characters blonde? Have you got something against brunettes and redheads?

‘No. The dirty blonde is a black woman; her hair is dyed. She’s not what she presents. The sisters are blonde. But only in this first book. And by choice. Almost all the blondes I’ve known well enough to discover the truth have been fake blondes. Why is this?’

Which women writers in the crime-thriller genre have inspired or influenced you?

‘Lots. Natsuo Kirino, PJ Tracy, Karin Fossum, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Fred Vargas, Åsa Larsson, Yiyun Li, Reggie Nadelson, Juli Zeh and many more. For brilliant understandings of conflict, you cannot better Iris Murdoch.

‘I can’t let this question go by without stretching it a little. Actual genuine personal help came from the authors EV Seymour, who does write in the genre, and Deborah Moggach, who doesn’t but should. And none of it would have happened without heavyweight encouragement, inspiration and limitless patience from RJ Ellory, who’s not a woman but is very clever all the same.’

———-

‘A Last Act of Charity’ by Frank Westworth is available in paperback and ebook formats from bookshops and online

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