Women and the Forensic Thriller

By: Elena Avanzas Álvarez

Every time I tell someone I am pursuing a PhD in the Humanities, it is clear to me that they do not think I am in my right mind. Then I tell them that I am doing this with no fixed income or scholarship to support it, and I can see fear in their faces. But my favourite reaction comes when I tell them I am writing a thesis about forensic crime fiction: ‘Why do you write your thesis about trash/airport/commercial literature?’ And every time I tell them that there is more to crime fiction than CSI. There is even more to CSI!!! And here is why:

Crime fiction has been – along with romance – one of the most popular literary subgenres since the 19th century. People are addicted to crime, especially if it comes from a book, as it appears to be a shallow but safe entertainment.

As Umberto Eco said, fiction offers readers different forests in which to get lost: No immediate or physical harm comes from reading a crime novel, and if it ever gets too much, we can always close the book and start another one, or turn the TV on, or simply go for a walk to clear up our minds. It is that simple. However, despite our historical preference as a society for crime stories, we are quickly to dismiss them as low-quality cultural products. Think about the contradiction between CSI’ audience ratings during its 15-year run (2000 – 2015), and how it is perceived by most people. Where does this tension come from?TemperanceBrennan

Historically, crime fiction has been regarded as corrupting literature, contagious stories that could turn readers into deprived human beings. Despite this belief, writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie are well-known even to modern audiences. They were big back then, and they still are. The passing of time has turned them into classics, but what do we have to say about the men – and especially the women – writing crime fiction nowadays? This is the reason I chose to focus my PhD thesis on contemporary authors: They are writing as we prepare our meals, go to school, go to work, or simply have a bath. Many of them are making a living of their writings, and some of them have changed the way in which we define ‘detective fiction’ in the 21st century. It is our duty, as well as a privilege, to enjoy their work, but also to support it in order to keep the arts going and evolve as a society.

If artists have it difficult, imagine women artists. We still live in a patriarchal society where the roles of child-bearing and caring are primarily associated to the women in the family leaving them – us! – less time to develop our careers and passions than our male counterparts. This is why I have also chosen to focus my research on women writers, especially since the crime fiction has always been considered a masculine genre that, nonetheless, has had some of the most successful female writers in the past century. Agatha Christie (1890 – 1976), Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (1889 – 1955), Patricia Highsmith (1921 – 1995), Margaret Millar (1915 – 1994), Liza Cody (1944 – ), Eleanor Taylor Bland (1944 – ), Ruth Rendell (1930 – 2015), P.D James (1920 – 2014), and Sue Grafton (1940 -), are some of the most well-known, but their works can be considered classics, even though some of them are still writing nowadays. So, instead of researching more about the past, I decided that it would be worth researching the type of crime fiction that has made of the detecting process a complicated and exciting combination of science, technology, and brains. That is, I chose to focus on forensic crime fiction because many of us cannot understand the detecting process without forensic science.

It all started in 1990, when Patricia Cornwell published the first novel in the Kay Scarpetta series. Postmortem (1990) tells the story of doctor Kay Scarpetta, Chief Medical Examiner of the State of Virginia, as she investigates the serial rapes and killings of Richmond’s young professional women.PostMortem

The novel is historically relevant as it inscribes DNA profiling in literature. Back then, recent forensic developments were considered yet another form of hocus-pocus and Scarpetta has to fight for DNA evidence to be performed by the laboratory.

However, the novel’s strength comes from the main character herself, who inscribes the struggles of the 1990’s feminism as her struggle against a male-dominated police department who doubts her abilities as a doctor takes central stage. After the success of Postmortem, Patricia Cornwell has written 25 Kay Scarpetta novels – the latest one published in 2016 – in which the middle-aged female forensic doctor has faced the difficulties typical of her gender, job, and situation as a main character in one of the most successful crime fiction series in America.

Cornwell’s success quickly inspired other female writers to dip into forensic thriller territory. Kathy Reichs being the most remarkable of them in the 1990’s with her debut novel Dèja Dead (1994).


If her name does not ring a bell, the television adaptation of her novels surely does. Author of the Temperance Brennan series, Reichs has seen how her fictional alter-ego has been transformed in one of the most beloved television characters in Bones (2005 – 2017). Even though Cornwell has a remarkable knowledge about forensic science, and she keeps herself constantly updated on the latest developments in the field, Reich has the advantage of writing about what she knows best: Forensic Anthropology. Like Brennan, Reich is one of the best forensic anthropologists in the USA, as well as a remarkable scientist, who has been working in humanitarian causes for the last 40 years. With the Brennan series, she has inscribed a very specific field of study in popular fiction, and she has offered women all over the world the opportunity to discover forensic anthropology as a field of study: If she can see it, she can be it.

From the rise of the forensic thriller in the 1990’s until the present day, the introduction of female forensic doctors in contemporary popular fiction (‘fiction’ here understood as any text in any format, television shows included) has become a tendency. And we, as an audience, love it. If you think of any crime fiction television show that you enjoy, it is very likely to star a female forensic doctor. Some of them feature this doctors as secondary characters, such as Castle (2009 – 2016), and CSI: NY (2004 – 2013). But there were also productions that focused on a female forensic doctor, who also did some detecting work. Think of Crossing Jordan (2001 – 2007), Body of Proof (2011 – 2013), or even Bones.


Crossing Jordan

All these women have something in common, and that is their ability to transform detection into a whole new process by including the latest advances in science and technology. Furthermore, they are qualified experts in reading bodies. If the corpse is the raison d`être of the crime narrative, forensic doctors are the ultimate sleuths, as their medical and scientific knowledge allows them to read a body and produce a narrative of the victim’s lived experience.

Crime fiction may be commercial. A crime novel may also be the best choice to keep to keep your attention during a flight, or while you wait for the train back home. But crime novels have so many layers, that they allow for both light and in-depth reading.

It is up to us to choose whether to focus on the thrilling page-turning quality of the text and dismiss it – why do we still equal easy with bad? – or we can choose to see the social prejudices, tensions and developments that build the story. In any case, something is clear: We like crime fiction. We read detective fiction. And we should study it.

More about women in crime fiction and the author here: