Fiction’s Female Felons

The vast majority of criminals are men. One statistic I found on “the Internets” says only 18% of the U.S. “correctional population” is female. Many men are just more lawless and violent, to state the obvious.

So when fictional women do something they might get arrested for, it can be…arresting. And startling, fascinating, etc. — heightening the drama many literature lovers crave.

Adding to the interest is that many female “villains” have nuanced, complex reasons for committing crimes. Maybe the power imbalance in a patriarchal world finally gets to them. Maybe the felony happens in a moment of intense anger. Maybe their victims fully or partly deserve it. Maybe some progression of circumstances makes the illegal action almost inevitable. You rarely see totally senseless violence done by women.

Anita Shreve’s absorbing novel The Weight of Water, which I read this month, features a double murder committed by a woman I won’t name to avoid a spoiler. One totally understands the fury that causes her to kill the first person, who had treated her badly. The killing that immediately follows — committed because that second victim was a witness about to run for help — was less easy to stomach.

The two homicides in Shreve’s book take place in the 1800s, as does the double murder in Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. The Grace Marks character serves a long prison term for being an accomplice to that crime (her male cohort is hanged), but it’s ambiguous how much Grace was actually involved in the mayhem.

Another 20th-century book set partly in the 19th century is Louis Sachar’s young-adult novel Holes, in which white teacher Katherine falls in love with Sam, a kind black man subsequently murdered for the interracial relationship. Katherine becomes a vengeful outlaw, killing a number of men who deserve that fate.

Novels written in the 19th-century also have their share of women on the wrong side of the law; among those books are George Eliot’s Adam Bede and Wilkie Collins’ Armadale.

Hetty Sorrel of Eliot’s novel is a poor young woman seduced by the rich squire Arthur Donnithorne, who has no intention of marrying her. She becomes pregnant, and what happens to the baby might mean the gallows for Hetty.

The charismatic Lydia Gwilt of Armadale is a schemer and would-be killer, but also possesses some conscience and vulnerability.

Virtually no vulnerability or conscience in Annie Wilkes, the psychotic former nurse from Stephen King’s Misery who does unspeakable things to the author (Paul Sheldon) she traps in her home.

As with Alias Grace, there are questions in Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel about whether the title character is a criminal or not. Did Rachel help poison Philip’s late guardian Ambrose? Or is she innocent?

Then there’s the self-defense killing by Janie Crawford in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, but she is nonetheless charged with murder.

Also charged with homicide (of her married lover) is Laura Hawkins in The Gilded Age by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner.

And as Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison begins, detective novelist Harriet Vane is in jail for allegedly offing her former lover.

Do Crawford, Hawkins, and Vane get convicted or acquitted? I don’t think it’s a crime to say I’m not telling. ๐Ÿ™‚

In the Jack Reacher novels, there are a small number of female “bad guys.” One book (I won’t name it for spoiler reasons) makes it seem like a man is the serial murderer of women when in fact the culprit ends up being a female (driven by bitterness toward her stepsister and a hankering for the family inheritance) who has slain the various women to confuse investigators. That Lee Child novel is similar to The Weight of Water in setting up a male as the probable suspect — which of course skillfully and subversively plays to our knowledge that men are more likely than women to commit crimes.

Who are some of your “favorite” female transgressors in literature?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area โ€” unless youโ€™re replying to someone else.)

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

125 thoughts on “Fiction’s Female Felons

  1. Joseph Hansen wrote a series of novels, beginning in the 1970’s, featuring Dave Branstetter, an openly gay insurance investigator– I’ve read two, one of which is Nightwork.

    Pertinent to topic is the bad guy, who is actually a mannish gay woman who ruthlessly oversees a criminal toxic waste dumping outfit of trucks and truckers.

    Hansen’s series may be the very first to feature an overtly gay detective, though you might argue for a few out of the past, way back when it was a love that dare not speak its name.

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    • I have to try “Nightwork” or another book in that series!

      Yes, there may have been closeted gay detectives in lit before the 1970s.

      Lesbian author Rita Mae Brown of “Rubyfruit Jungle” fame has written a bunch of mysteries (the first in 1990) featuring an amateur detective and her sleuthing pets. The human sleuth is heterosexual — not sure about the dog and cat…

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  2. Hi Dave, I’m currently about half way through “Romeo and Juliet” which isn’t turning out to be the feel-good romp I was hoping for! But it’s amazing nonetheless. I’m enjoying it much more than I expected to.

    And it got me thinking about “Macbeth” which I had to read in high school. It’s been a while, but if I recall correctly, Lady Macbeth played a big part in having a King murdered. Having a man to do her dirty work makes her technically not a felon, but she’s not exactly guilt free. And considering Shakespeare predates popular fiction where women become the ‘bad guy’ as misdirection (as already mentioned by jhny), as well as any kind of feminism, I think Lady Macbeth is a kind of fun character. I just wouldn’t trust her if she could at all benefit from my death!

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    • “…which isnโ€™t turning out to be the feel-good romp I was hoping for” — ha ha, the line of the week, Susan! ๐Ÿ™‚ And a great comment in general.

      Yes, Lady Macbeth is no Pollyanna. (If Tolstoy wrote a children’s book, would it be “Pollyanna Karenina”?)

      I’m very impressed with your 2015-16 run of reading various classic novels and plays. One of these days, I need to try more Shakespeare, and reread the few plays of his I’ve read.

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      • “(If Tolstoy wrote a childrenโ€™s book, would it be โ€œPollyanna Kareninaโ€?)”

        In the movie Pollyanna (never read the book), the last scene shows our l’il heroine being escorted by townspeople onto a waiting train; in the Tolstoy book, the heroine’s last scene takes place under one.

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  3. Dave, I’ve been thinking about other mystery writers that I’m very fond of, and the one that came to mind immediately was Josephine Tey (another woman considered as one of the best writers during the Golden Age of mysteries). As relates to the theme of this blog, she wrote “The Franchise Affair,” which is about a young woman who claims to have been kidnapped by a mother and daughter and held captive, all the while being starved and beaten before she manages to escape. The plot revolves around a lawyer who comes to believe the two women are innocent, and it leads to his investigation of the supposed victim. Not exactly a murder mystery, but intriguing and well-written. Another not typical mystery was “Miss Pym Disposes,” which takes place at a women’s physical training college, where Miss Pym has come to as a guest lecturer (she’s a psychologist), so anything that happens here is definitely done by a woman.

    As an aside, Tey wrote the much-praised “The Daughter of Time,” which was voted to be the best mystery ever by the Crime Writers’ Association in 1990. I’m sure that ranking is no longer held by this novel, but it certainly was interesting. Alan Grant, Tey’s detective that is in five or so of her novels, is in the hospital for a broken leg. In order to pass the time, a friends offers him some info on Richard III and he “investigates” whether or not Richard III actually killed the “Princes in the Tower” and if he was actually a hunchback. It was so intriguing, and again, very well-written. I wanted to go out and buy everything I could on Richard III.

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    • Josephine Tey sounds like a really interesting author, Kat Lib. Thanks for the great description of some of her work! “The Daughter of Time” voted best mystery ever? Wow! Was Richard III the one whose bones were found not that long ago? (I might be thinking of someone else. ๐Ÿ™‚ )

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      • Yes, I think you’re right about the finding of bones under a parking lot in Leicester that may be Richard’s, such that he was reinterred in the Leicester Cathedral not that long ago. The skeleton they found had scoliosis, which would probably account for his being known as a hunchback. As much as I love reading about history, it’s extremely difficult to remember and understand about all the persons who are only known as “so and so” with a Roman numeral after their name. Probably the most noteworthy king of England was Henry VIII, who had so many wives (probably most remembered is “Anne of the 1,000 days,” which was also a movie). And now I have that ridiculous song “‘I’m Henry the Eighth, I am,” by Herman’s Hermits” running through my brain. Thanks, Dave :).

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        • I know — so many of those kings (and the occasional queen) have the same names with different numbers. A pope problem, too. And I do remember that Herman’s Hermits song! Along with “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” album by Rick Wakeman, who was also with the prog-rock band Yes for a while.

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            • You’ve seen, and will see, many great concerts, Ana! And I agree about Chris Squire. I was at a Yes concert a LONG time ago — in 1974, I think, during the band’s peak years. I have absolutely no memory of the concert. (I am and was drug-free, but it was just too long ago. ๐Ÿ™‚ )

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          • While I wasn’t a major Yes fan, that album does sound familiar to me (and I would have been swayed by the title as well). I also wanted to mention the death of Davy Jones of Monkees’ fame who apparently had a heart attack at the age of 66 (my age). It just seems that there have been so many well-known people who’ve been dying in their 60’s this year. David Bowie was born David Jones, and he changed his last name so he wouldn’t be confused with Davy Jones. My favorite song of the Monkees was “Daydream Believer,” which is one of those songs that keeps repeating in my brain over and over. The good news is that this song is so much better than “I, Henry the 8th I am)”! ๐Ÿ™‚

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            • Yes, a LOT of recent rock star deaths, including some who were a bit older than their 60s. Bowie, Glenn Frey, Keith Emerson, Paul Kantner…

              And I agree, Kat Lib, that “Daydream Believer” is a MUCH better song than “I’m Henry the Eighth I Am”!

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              • Whoda Thunkit? (me, but then I know how many pre-British Invasion music pros manged to find their way back to money via songwriting for the Monkees. I even worked in the Brill Building, where much of that work was done under the auspices and attention of Don Kirshner, who later went on to years of teevee glory as a latenite rock show producer.)

                according to wikipedia:
                “Daydream Believer” is a song composed by John Stewart shortly before he left the Kingston Trio.

                The Monkees were the first to record the song.

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                  • The Monkees, at the height of their success, had, as I recall, either four or six songs in the Top Ten, all written by others– at which point, the group demanded more creative control, and more room for their own songs. The rest is history, but comparatively obscure history.

                    (By the way, the Anonymous above was me.) I had a gig at a music publishing company in the 1980’s– I wrote a song a week for $100 per– and one of my publisher’s projects for me was a songwriting session with Peter Tork. When the appointed hour came, no Tork. Of course, by then, there was not much going on for him professionally at all– nor for me, beyond that gig. I was morbidly curious to spend time with him at close range, but I knew our pairing would have been outlandish, and most likely fruitless– I’d already heard him sing Your Auntie Grizelda.

                    The Monkees were a made-for teevee band from the start– dozens of musicians in LA at the time auditioned for a role, including Stephen Stills.

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                    • Thanks, jhNY, for all the interesting information and personal memories — including your almost-encounter with a post-heyday Peter Tork.

                      The band-by-audition thing continued on occasion after the Monkees — some famous “boy bands” have been assembled that way, I think. Nice that the Monkees tried to get out of their gilded cage a bit. Other singers started as Mouseketeers or other such Disney types (Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Alanis Morissette, Miley Cyrus, etc.) before branching out into somewhat more independent/mature stuff.

                      Stephen Stills as a potential Monkee — wow!

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                    • For the record, I think The Monkees did pretty well for a manufactured group. However, I pretty much despise most of the ‘Davy’ songs, including “Daydream Believer”, which was something of a “Penny Lane” ripoff. John Stewart thankfully wrote better songs in his subsequent career but Dave plus the orchestra nauseated me. The best Monkees songs were usually from Mike Nesmith. He was the only one that was actually a pretty talented songwriter and he was the one pushing for more autonomy for the group. Their third album, ‘Headquarters’, was probably their best. It was the first one on which they were actually allowed to play many of their own instruments although they were still augmented by other studio musicians. Even when they didn’t play they had some great session musicians as well as some pretty good songwriters writing for them (Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Neil Diamond). Of course, just after ‘Headquarters’ came out and my brother and I were congratulating them on moving up to the big leagues, the Beatles came out with ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and erased most of our memories of how impressive ‘Headquarters’ was. They do deserve credit for being part of some pretty decent music sprinkled throughout the not so decent. They were also pretty hip and certainly not brainless. These guys did hang out with the Beatles and many of the cool people from that era. They were in the audience at Monterey Pop Festival and Jimi Hendrix was even their opening act when they went on tour. So they were an integral part of the music of that era, regardless of their origins or why they were put together. Regarding Stephen Sills, I can understand why he was rejected. Stills is a fantastic musician, singer and songwriter. However, I’ve never noticed that he has a particularly attuned sense of humor. Mike, Peter, Davy and Mickey were all more comfortable being silly in front of the camera, so I think Stills was where he belonged, creating great short-lived music with Buffalo Springfield and then on to Crosby, Stills, Nash (& Young).

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                    • Great points and info, Brian! I’ve also read that Mike Nesmith was the major “brain” within the group. I have a Monkees 45 or two in my singles collection, so I wasn’t totally immune to their charms. But even as a dumb preteen I could tell The Monkees paled next to The Beatles, The Who, etc.

                      And, yes, Stills NOT being with The Monkees was an excellent career move. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  4. “Pigs In Heaven” is the sequel to Barbara Kingsolver’s novel “The Bean Trees.” It continues the story of Taylor Greer, her adopted daughter Turtle who is now school age, and the life they built out West.

    The adoption took place at the end of The Bean Trees, and it serves as the central theme in the sequel. The adoption was done under very murky circumstances. Taylor knew the adoption was questionable and took steps to make sure she didn’t raise any suspicions when they travelled throughout the Western states.

    Unfortunately for Taylor, a nationwide news story involving Turtle put them both on the radar of a young lawyer from the Cherokee nation in Oklahoma. Turtle was also Cherokee. Because Taylor was a white woman, the lawyer suspected the adoption was not legitimate because their culture and customs did not encourage trans-racial adoptions.

    The attorney tracked Taylor and Turtle down in Arizona. She met with Taylor and expressed her concerns about Turtle’s heritage and upbringing. Taylor knew that time would come, that she would eventually have to deal with the consequences of the questionable adoption.

    Rather than go through the legal procedures, Taylor packed up their things and went on the run with Turtle. She went as far as Washington state. Taylor’s mother was 1/4 Cherokee on her maternal side, so she had an “in” with a few influential members of the nation. She kept in contact with Taylor trying to convince her to return to Oklahoma and let the adoption claim play out. Taylor got tired of running; she took Turtle to Oklahoma and met with the Cherokee nation.

    It was decided that Taylor would share custody of Turtle with her blood Cherokee relatives. The arrangement was for Turtle to live with Taylor for nine months out of the year, and with her Cherokee relatives for three months (the summer months).

    I thought that was a good resolution. Even though Taylor went on the run with her daughter (which could be considered kidnapping), the bond they shared was unbreakable. Rather than rip the little girl from the only mother she’s ever known, representatives from the Cherokee came up with an arrangement that (1) allowed Turtle to remain in Taylor’s custody and (2) keep Turtle culturally aware.

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    • That WAS a great resolution — and a great summary of “Pigs in Heaven,” Ana. I read that early Barbara Kingsolver novel a number of years ago, so I appreciate hearing all those details I had forgotten.

      There is certainly all kinds of criminal behavior, and then there’s behavior that might be open to legal questioning but is not evil in any way. Such was the adoption of Turtle by Taylor.

      As we’ve discussed before, the law is a human-made thing that’s full of all kinds of bias and inconsistencies. Heck, a poor person can go to jail for stealing a loaf of bread but billionaire bankers got no punishment for tanking the economy in 2008. Or someone can go to jail for injuring one person but George W. Bush and Dick Cheney will never go to jail for starting an unnecessary war that killed and maimed millions.

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      • I had sympathy for everyone involved. Turtle, for obvious reasons. Taylor feared losing her child and did what she thought was best given the circumstances. Taylor’s mother was affected too. She didn’t like the idea of her daughter running scared and was concerned about the health and safety of both Taylor and Turtle.

        And even though the attorney Annawake was trying to terminate the adoption, I had sympathy for her as well. The bloody and brutal history between the U.S. government and Native Americans certainly made her claims of cultural genocide legitimate. I can understand why she felt Turtle was stolen from the Cherokee nation through this informal adoption.

        Turtle suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, which made her shut down emotionally. When Taylor entered her life, she became a brand new person, a normal, happy, functioning child. To separate them because of customs and traditions would have been very cruel. Joint custody was the perfect solution to a very complex problem.

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        • Yes, Ana, one can see and sympathize with the perspectives of all sides — and the cultural factor definitely complicated things. But in a situation like that, what’s best for the kid is paramount (as you noted) — and the solution was excellent.

          As the adoptive parent of my second daughter — who’s of Guatemalan/Mayan descent — I’ve thought of some of those issues on a personal level.

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      • “As weโ€™ve discussed before, the law is a human-made thing thatโ€™s full of all kinds of bias and inconsistencies.”

        Yep. Poor kid gets caught with weed, he/she will be jailed for 6 months, slapped with a large fine, and end up with a criminal record.

        Rich kids gets drunk and high, kills 4 people while driving intoxicated, and faces no charges due to his/her affluenza.

        One reason why I liked the Kingsolver novel was because for once, an average person actually got a break with the “system.” The attorney knew the ethical and moral decisions she faced, yet decided not to throw the full legal power of her office at Taylor’s prosecution. She did what was best for Taylor, Turtle, and their future together.

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        • It’s unfortunate we sometimes need literature to see someone get a break from the “system.” In real life, that rarely happens; “money talks” most of the time. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

          One reason I love literature so much! Many fictional works can be as depressing as factual events, yet there are also more moments of inspiration and/or wish fulfillment than we might see in real life.

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        • On the chance you haven’t run across this quote, I provide it:

          “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”– Anatole France

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  5. In Fannie Flagg’s “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafรฉ”, Frank Bennett was a well known (and not well liked) man in town. He was a pure sociopath. Sexual predator, racist, and violent drunk who took pleasure in humiliating/degrading people, particularly women. It was even said that his glass eye showed more humanity than his human eye…Frank was just that cruel.

    His reputation was not known in Whistle Stop. Frank was somewhat attractive, popular, and had money, so it was assumed that he was a decent guy. Ruth fell for his charms, and left Whistle Stop to marry him. Once married, the true Frank came out. He frequently abused Ruth both physically and sexually. Since he was the breadwinner, Frank would threaten to strip Ruth as well as her mother of their financial stability. Faced with the choice of her and her mother being out on the street, Ruth stayed in the marriage and endured the abuse.

    After the death of her mother, Ruth reached out to her friends and family in Whistle Stop. She wanted out of the marriage. Her best friend Idgie promptly formed a group who drove to Frank’s house and packed up Ruth’s things. Idgie threatened to kill Frank if he ever looked at or touched Ruth again.

    Ruth resettled into life in Whistle Stop, and opened up the cafe with Idgie. A few years later, police officers from Frank’s hometown went to Whistle Stop to ask questions regarding Frank’s disappearance. Idgie and her handyman Big George were eventually arrested for his murder, but his body was never found (at the time of the trial). Idgie’s testimony was hilarious. The entire trial was quite comical, but her testimony stole the show. The judge dismissed all charges against Idgie and Big George.

    It was revealed after the trial that Idgie covered for Sipsey, the cafe’s cook. Frank Bennett was killed…just not by Idgie. Frank successfully tracked Ruth down and attempted to kidnap their/his son. Sipsey prevented the kidnapping by hitting Frank in the head with a cast iron skillet and killing him. Big George disposed of the body in a very *unique* way. Because of the close friendship that existed between all of them, Idgie was willing to take the fall for Sipsey’s crime.

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    • I absolutely love “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafรฉ,” and that murder, as you note, was totally deserved and to be applauded. Outstanding description of that whole scenario, Ana. Thanks!

      If you’re ever looking for another Fannie Flagg novel, “The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion” is quite good, too. One of its stars is a female World War II pilot. (I realize you might have read it!)

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      • The trial was one of those “oh wow” moments because everything came together. The pastor testified that Idgie and Big George were at a church revival during the time frame of Frank’s disappearance. He also produced a list of revival attendees who were ready to swear Idgie was at all of the services while Big George worked the food tent.

        Those witnesses were actually the down-and-out men from the cafรฉ. Ruth and Idgie fed them during the Depression. They never turned away a hungry person. And by allowing the men to perform odd jobs in exchange for meals, Ruth and Idgie let them keep their dignity. These men weren’t lazy or drunks. They wanted to work and earn their keep, but no jobs were available. Ruth and Idgie treated them like honourable men, not vagabonds.

        They remembered how well Idgie treated them and didn’t hesitate to stand up for her when she needed it the most. Even the judge had an emotional interest in the trial. Frank Bennett was the father of his grandson. The judge’s daughter was beaten by Frank. He also threatened to kill her if she ever revealed the paternity of that child, or asked him for financial support. The daughter died from cancer while living on the outskirts of town. The judge knew the witnesses who were standing up for Idgie were false, but he didn’t care. He had no interest in punishing anyone who was accused of murdering the man he held responsible for his daughter’s death.

        Those incredibly unhealthy high fat, high sodium, high sugar, high carb Southern recipes at the back of the book gave me literary diabetes and high blood pressure (lol). But as a whole, this is one helluva novel.

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        • Outstanding description, Ana! Now there’s an example of a case fortunately being decided not by the letter of the law but by the letter of humanity. So wonderful when good deeds are later rewarded in unexpected ways.

          As for those recipes, it wouldn’t have felt right for the novel to be titled “Broiled Green Tomatoes at the Vegan Stop Cafรฉ.” ๐Ÿ™‚

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          • As a former citizen of that state, I can attest: it’s great food, that stuff, once in a while, not daily or anywhere close to it. The salt of TN ham, boiled off, would be easily enough to salt two ordinary hams and a driveway.

            However: it’s home cookin’, the sort of thing one yearns for, sometimes unknowingly, in times of existential crisis. Thirty years ago, when a hurricane threatened to wipe us off the island, I was scurrying around my Upper West Side neighborhood, gathering basic supplies, speedily, automatically– I had about an hour before the hurricane was due to arrive. In the checkout line, for the first time really, I looked into my basket and there I discovered,besides the usual bread and milk: black eyed peas, corn meal, ham, green beans…if they had sold sorghum in that store, I’d have bought it too, I’m sure!

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  6. Wow Dave ,what a deliciously random topic, love it! The first work that occurred to me was an obscure Mark Twain novel( I believe it was his last) a fictional and basically straight up treatment doing Joan of Arc . I shall try and dig it up as I recall the chapters on her imprisonment by and abuse from the English were quite riveting. In the meantime in honor of both the topic at hand and tomorrow’s green holiday allow me to leave you with The Auld Triangle via The Punch Brothers and Marcus Mumford ๐Ÿ™‚ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=
    9vi14x4nCpQ

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    • Ha — thank you, Donny! I’m afraid most of my topics are random. ๐Ÿ™‚ Whatever idea happens to occur to me from whatever novel I happen to be reading…

      “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc” is an excellent novel! I’ve heard it was Twain’s personal favorite — even though he of course wrote a number of more famous books. He certainly researched the heck out of it. Interesting that it’s one of Twain’s rare works with a female main character, even though the events in the novel are recollected by a male.

      As for your link, interesting song — and great voices. Plus I liked that quip in the beginning about none of the singers being Irish. ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • Lovely stuff!! Thanks for sharing it.

      Blasphemy, no doubt, but here’s an English (Yorkshire) group, The Watersons, singing a capella, as per usual, a tender song of a thief’s regret “Adieu, Adieu (The Flash Lad)”:

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  7. One of the very first English language novels, published in 1722, was โ€œMoll Flandersโ€ by Daniel Defoe. Actually, the full title of the novel (and concise summary) is โ€œThe Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continued Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, lived Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums.โ€ (Can you imagine having to act out that title in a game of charades). So the female felon has been around about as long as the English language novel has been around. This is a very interesting book, and it is not difficult sympathizing with this criminal. There were very few paths for English women in 1722, especially women of low birth. Moll certainly had ambition, and used the only path open to her to achieve the independence and success that she desires.

    Another great example of a novel with a nefarious woman is Madame DeFarge from Dickensโ€™ โ€œA Tale of Two Citiesโ€. A somewhat minor but important character, she outdoes her husband and other Jacobins in her almost pathological blood-lust for revenge against any and all enemies of the revolution. You do not want your name knitted into her large blanket โ€œregistryโ€.

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  8. The woman who begins her tale with the words “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, cannot, as a certain Mrs. Danvers started something while playing with matches, making her an arsonist, criminal-wise, and thus, pertinent to our theme this week.

    I refer, of course, to Rebecca, the film, as I have not read Daphne Du Maurier’s novel of the same name. It would seem several zillion have.

    According to wikipedia,
    “A best-seller, Rebecca sold 2,829,313 copies between its publication in 1938 and 1965, and the book has never gone out of print.”

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    • Mrs. Danvers was definitely not Mother Teresa! Thanks for mentioning her, jhNY. I’ve also seen the film but not read the novel.

      By the way, I was just at the library an hour or so ago and took out a book you and Brian Bess recommended — Dostoevsky’s “Notes From a Dead House.” To add to the 19th-century Russian lit immersion, I also borrowed a Tolstoy collection that includes “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “The Kreutzer Sonata.”

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  9. How about “The Hundred and One Dalmatians” by Dodie Smith and the villainess Cruella de Vil , the obnoxious wealthy woman fixated on fur clothing. Always thought puppies are worthless and should be skinned and sure so did to some.
    Oh my suddenly she does remind me of someone we once knew of ๐Ÿ˜†

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    • Fantastic addition to this discussion, bebe! One of those examples of a movie so famous that the book it was based on is almost unknown. That character certainly had an apt first name.

      Ha ha — can’t imagine who Cruella de Vil reminds you of. ๐Ÿ™‚ Hmm, if we changed the sight of dogs to a site with blogs…

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      • The description fits must be her !!!

        How about “Hansel and Gretel” the original German fairy tales. So many fairy tales have ruthless females. Here the hideous bloodthirsty old hag of a witch tries to fatten kids up then cook them to eat, who knows how many she has eaten.
        The latest ones are Hansel and Gretel had a wicked stepmother fall into the clutch of the witch and then had a grand escape.

        So many original fairy tales are scary in nature Dave.

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        • Very true that many fairy tales are scary, bebe. And some of the witches in lit (there are positive ones, too) can indeed be villains. Bellatrix Lestrange in the “Harry Potter” books would be another example in addition to the witch in “Hansel and Gretel” — a tale you described in a wonderfully vivid way!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Perhaps I drifted away from topic ” felon”…but it was written in German in the beginning of 19th century, and the story of evil Cruella de Vil was a children s book so the word would be totally inappropriate. ๐Ÿ˜€

            Liked by 1 person

            • bebe, even though I put felon in my headline (for alliterative purposes ๐Ÿ™‚ ) and focused a lot on murderers or accused murderers, my post was basically about female criminals — which could include those who committed lower-level crimes. So your mentioning of that book works!

              Liked by 1 person

  10. As ‘felons’ is the fictional designation, crime novels would form the greatest single source of female felons because: man bites dog makes a headline, and not the reverse.

    This leads to an over-population of murder fiction by female killers– authorial misdirection in the form of buttressing our internalized stereotypes (which are not baseless)– a woman is, generally the least likely on anybody’s real-life suspect list, so in fictional murder mysteries, they tend toward over-representation.

    But heck, I read a good one not long ago, and would recommend it: Woman With Birthmark by Sweden’s Hakan Nesser. I have occasionally found Scandinavian crime fiction a bit wanting: the police procedural stuff, the non-criminal characters, the scenes are good, but the crimes and the criminals themselves seem outlandish, and even unlikely. I find Woman With Birthmark to be a compelling crime story for the simple reason that the crime at the story’s center, and his murderess’ response, are plausible.

    The rights of nobility, and their assumption of privilege in defense of honor or position can lead to what we would call crime. My old hobbyhorse, The Charterhouse of Parma features a heroine of great courage, decisiveness and passion: the Duchessa de Sanseverina. She, as much as her nephew Fabricio, is a major character in the novel. But she, in the course of doing what she feels she must, purchases forged passports, has jail guards made drunk and their chief drugged, pays for a small army to help a prisoner to escape from jail, pays a madman-poet to poison the prince, and opens up a reservoir to discomfort the citizens of Parma. And all for love.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, crime fiction/detective fiction/mysteries have plenty of female felons. My problem is not having read a huge amount of crime fiction/detective fiction/mysteries, so I had to find some examples from “general” fiction a la Atwood, George Eliot, Zora Neale Hurston, Twain, etc. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Great point about how the lesser number of female felons in real life can be helpful in misdirection and so on in literature.

      And thanks for the mentions of “Woman With Birthmark” and “The Charterhouse of Parma” — both novels very relevant to this topic! I guess the Duchessa de Sanseverina did break a few laws… ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • Hello, jhNY. I’ve read at least one of Hakan Nesser’s books ,but not the one you mentioned. I think he is one of my brother’s favorites, although that changes (along with my own) from time to time.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Maybe you’ve seen me mention Anne Holt here– ever read her? I have read but one, Blind Goddess, but it’s among my favorites from Norway. Holt has a unique background, and a perfect one, for crime-writing, having spent time as a reporter, police woman, lawyer, then television news anchor and Minister of Justice. Makes for a confidence of treatment throughout every stage and scene.

        Hope to stumble on another one of hers soon….

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi Dave, I realize I may have given a spoiler on Dorothy L. Sayers’ “Strong Poison” in last week’s column. Sorry about that! However, in “Gaudy Night,” the perpetrator is almost certainly a woman, although the crime is not murder, but it could have eventually come to that. It starts with poison pen letters to increasingly erratic and violent pranks taking place in a woman’s college at Oxford. Most of the characters are female, from the students, to the dons, and staff.
    I think I once had a book entitled “Murderess, Inc.” but if so, it was thrown out recently in one of my more extensive purges of my bookshelves. Or perhaps I am not remembering things correctly, which has been known to happen. Just today, I had arranged to meet a friend for lunch, and I even wrote it down; however, I ended up at the wrong restaurant. My friend wasn’t too happy with me, and we ended up at a restaurant halfway in between where we both were. Much to my chagrin, when I got home and saw my note, it was very clear I wrote it down correctly, but I didn’t read the whole note. He says that from now on, he’s going to call me every time we have a meeting somewhere to remind me. This is from a man I worked for for many years, and he used to call me his memory bank, because I had such a great memory for everything. What is most unsettling is that he’s 21 years older than I! ๐Ÿ™‚
    I also think that from my extensive reading of mysteries, a woman can’t be excluded from being a villain, which I guess is a good thing? Equality, after all. In some ways, more modern books are about serial killers, and I think it’s pretty well known that men are more likely to be serial killers than women.
    One of Lisa Scottoline’s books that I read last year was “Dead Ringer,” in which Bennie Rosato (the boss of the all-women law office) is targeted by her identical twin, Alice. Alice locks up Bennie (from which she of course escapes), and must spend most of the novel convincing people that she knows that she is the real Bennie. It was quite entertaining, yet somewhat implausible that Bennie’s closest friends and associates can’t tell the difference between the two.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hard to totally avoid spoilers in a literature discussion, Kat Lib. I’ve done it myself. ๐Ÿ™‚ Helped by your great description, I think “Gaudy Night” would be the next Dorothy L. Sayers novel I’ll read.

      Yes, it makes things more interesting when a woman can be the possible “villain,” even if the majority of bad guys are…guys. Especially serial killers (fictional and real), as you note.

      That Lisa Scottoline novel sounds really interesting. The use of twins/lookalikes can be such a great plot device, as is also the case in works such as Alexandre Dumas’ “The Man in the Iron Mask,” Mark Twain’s “Pudd’nhead Wilson,” and the book that inspired “The Parent Trap” movie.

      I was looking forward to what would be in your comment because you’re such a mystery expert, and you didn’t disappoint!

      P.S.: Sorry about that restaurant snafu, but it does make for a good anecdote. ๐Ÿ™‚

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      • Dave, is there actually a book about “The Parent Trap”? If so, I never knew about it. I was enthralled by the movie, both the Hayley Mills version, and eventually the Lindsay Lohan version. As much as I loved the second, the first won my heart. Some of this may be due to the fact that Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara played the parents, even though I loved Natasha Richardson who died an early death that shouldn’t have ever happened.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Kat Lib, I had no idea that “The Parent Trap” film was based on a book until I looked it up when making my previous reply to you. ๐Ÿ™‚ Apparently, it was a (seemingly obscure?) 1949 book called “Lottie and Lisa.”

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Parent_Trap_(1961_film)

          I also liked both versions of the movie — the second of which Lindsay Lohan made before she started burning the candle at both ends, to paraphrase Edna St. Vincent Millay.

          Yes, a real tragedy involving Natasha Richardson. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

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          • So interesting, Dave, that “The Parent Trap” was based on a story from 1949. I learn something every time I read your blog and from your very knowledgeable commenters. After I mentioned the book “Murderess, Inc.” it made me think of a bookstore in NYC, that I visited many moons ago, Murder, Inc. It was rather small, but the shelves were piled high with only mysteries. Of course, there was also a cat who seemingly owned the place. I don’t believe in a heaven, but if I did, it would have been this store.

            Liked by 1 person

            • That “Parent Trap” info stunned me, too, Kat Lib. Interesting how some movies become so much more famous than the book or story they’re based on that the book or story is practically unknown!

              I agree — we all learn so much from each other on this blog. ๐Ÿ™‚

              That bookstore DOES sound fantastic. A cluttered bookstore with a cat — doesn’t get much better than that. (Unintentional rhyme.)

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              • I should have known, jhNY, that you’d be the one to actually know the store, as well as its proper name. I’m not even sure how I first heard about it, but when my friend and I visited there way back when, it was the one store I really wanted to see.

                Liked by 1 person

        • Hi Dave, I hope you enjoy it, but if not, that’s OK too. It’s a book that has stayed with me through all my adult years; perhaps because Sayers was a part of the first feminist wave. I think the thing that has been most important of all the topics she covers in this book, is that one must do their proper job. I say this as a woman who would be considered to have under-performed in most of her jobs based on education, etc., but I did very well, considering. I’ll look forward to your review of the book.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Kat Lib, I love some novels that were feminist/partly feminist before the modern feminist era — “Jane Eyre,” “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” etc. I look forward to reading “Gaudy Night,” and will tell you what I think! Hope to get to it in late March/early April.

            Doing a job well is so important and admirable, even if one is somewhat “overqualified.” I’ve been there, too. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  12. The most vicious, unprincipled, psychopathic female killer in novels has got to be that of Ellen, in Ben Ames Williams’ “Leave Her to Heaven.” Ellen falls in love with Richard, a novelist, with such intensity and obsession that she cannot stand it if the object of her possessiveness should care for anyone else, not even his crippled younger brother, whom he adores. In her twisted thinking, he can love no one but her. She has to have Richard exclusively and totally, as she had once had her late father. Ellen can kill with serene and guiltless precision, those she feels are close to Richard, even her unborn child. As a kid, when I sneakily read this novel by flashlight under the covers after my parents were asleep, it was so disturbing that anyone like Ellen could exist, I had to go to Confession; the priest attempted to alleviate my fear by telling me it was only a novel and to put it out of my mind. And then the movie came out. That made things even worse. The moment I saw the title of this column, Dave, I flashed back. I’m not comparing my emotional leftovers with our brave veterans, but it’s a kind of PTSD. Maybe I should read it again and it will prove to be nothing like my childhood memory of it. My message to kids out there everywhere is “When your mom forbids you to read something, don’t read it.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, thepatterer, for the terrific comment and for sharing your flash-backed childhood memory of reading a VERY scary book. That Ellen character sounds appalling. There’s obsession, and then there’s OBSESSION. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

      I’m curious how you found out about “Leave Her to Heaven” as a kid. From a friend? Kids often have a supersonic sense for reading/hearing/doing things their parents won’t approve of. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  13. I have vague recollections of a mother drowning her baby daughter in a bucket of water in “The Good Earth”, but it has been almost 50 years since I read the novel, so I’m not sure I’m remembering correctly. However, that didn’t seem to be a crime at the time, and I’m not sure that it is today in China.

    What an interesting topic, Dave! You mentioned “My Cousin Rachel” which was a fascinating book! I never resolved in my own mind whether or not Rachel was guilty! Another wonderful Daphne du Maurier novel is “Rebecca” with the demented Mrs. Danvers, or how about the mad first Mrs. Rochester from “Jane Eyre”?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, lulabelle, for the excellent comment!

      I think (?) I read “The Good Earth” many years ago, and am not sure about that drowning event in it, either.

      Yes, “My Cousin Rachel” is such a compelling book — and a lot of the “compellingness” involves the unresolved issue of whether Rachel should be trusted or not. Like you, I was also never sure — which I imagine was Daphne du Maurier’s intent. If Rachel WAS to be trusted, the novel’s conclusion is heartbreaking.

      Mrs. Danvers is indeed creepy, as is the first Mrs. Rochester — who, because of mental illness and being basically imprisoned in the attic, could sort of be excused for that memorable attack of hers in the night.

      Liked by 2 people

        • I’m not as familiar with Pearl S. Buck as I should be. The used bookstore where I frequently shop has several of her novels on the $1.00 and $3.00 shelves, but I haven’t bought any. Not sure why.

          Which one would you recommend I start with first?

          Liked by 1 person

          • Ana…I strongly recommend ” Good Earth” that is the only one I have read.
            It is an epic gut wrenching novel of a family from riches to rags will pull your heartstrings , I was thinking of borrowing it again.

            Liked by 1 person

                • Aww geez….don’t tell me it’s one of those culturally cringe-worthy movies.

                  Coincidentally, my DVD arrived yesterday. Maybe I should watch something a little more laid back, like Killer Klowns From Outer Space, before diving into The Good Earth.

                  Liked by 1 person

                  • Hi, bebe! Thankfully, Hollywood isn’t using white people to play people of color as much as it used to, but, as you accurately note, it still happens on occasion. For instance, the movie based on Isabel Allende’s “The House of the Spirits” mostly had white performers playing Hispanic characters. And there’s been recent controversy over the lighter-skinned Zoe Saldana playing singer Nina Simone in a biopic.

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                    • Zoe is stunning but could she sing ? I was not aware of that. At least Audra McDonald was playing Billie Holiday, she is a versatile actor and a great singer. Some years ago there was a Christmas special on PBS and she was so magnificent.
                      We had a discussion in here Dave about a black James Bond as Idris Elba, he would make a fine one. Who really knows ?

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Zoe Saldana is definitely a great actress (I liked her in “Star Trek,” “Avatar,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy”), but I don’t know if she can sing or not. (I guess, as you know, movie stars sometimes get dubbed with other people’s voices.) Saldana certainly looks nothing like Nina Simone.

                      Audra McDonald is VERY versatile. She can do it all!

                      I remember that James Bond discussion, bebe! I feel differently about “non-traditional” casting for fictional characters than for real people. In my mind, various ethnicities could play Bond. But Simone was a real person.

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                    • After I read your post..I looked up for the movie then in NPR there is an article of that miscast again. it is sad they darkened Zoe`s skin and had a fake nose on the to justify her role. That is so absurd if Zoe was a fantastic singer that would make sense. This defies everything what Nina Simone have gone through life.

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                    • You’re right, bebe! An insult to Nina Simone’s memory, and the stuff she had to go through for looking too “African” and not “light-skinned enough.” There are so many other great actresses who would have been more appropriate — including Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, to name just two.

                      Liked by 1 person

  14. Abandoning a five year old child by herself in a home and leaving without a trace is not a violent crime but could have been if the child opened the door walked out there Only to be hit by a car or be kidnapped or what not.
    And if a mother can do that to their own it is a cruel and calculating move should have been prosecuted.
    The character is Gouri in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Lowland. “

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Agatha Christie wrote a short story,then adapted into a play called “Witness To The Prosecution.” She changed ending in play. Romaine,who went by Christine in an excellent,highly suspenseful film made by Alfred Hitchcock, was played by Marlena Dietrich in the film. The play had a different ending than film. Leonard Vole,wife of Romaine or Christine depending on version, ends up stabbing her husband who is charged with murdering a wealthy older woman. In play, Christie also added a mistress for Leonard. Clearly could have added to the need to kill spouse who was being tried for perjury.

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  16. Although it’s been over 30 years since I read Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’, didn’t Seth kill her daughter to keep her from being enslaved? I may have misremembered the details but I recall the ghost of the daughter appearing in that novel and Sethe’s guilt.

    I can think of more female killers in film that literature. In ‘Thelma and Louise’ I believe Louise murders the fellow that’s raping Thelma and they both just get deeper into trouble as they become sought after fugitives. Even Aileen Wuornos, the real-life serial killer that was the subject of the film ‘Monster’, was depicted as being a victim of rape and otherwise brutalized since childhood, which MIGHT explain some of her vengeance, although she obviously carries it to a pathological extreme.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It has also been a long time since I read “Beloved,” but I think you’re right, bobess48. In many ways, it was an understandable killing given the slavery factor. And, come to think of it, another Toni Morrison novel — “Sula” — features two girls sort of accidentally responsible for a boy’s death.

      Yes, some memorable films with female killers. “Bonnie and Clyde,” too. The murder in “Thelma and Louise” was definitely among the justifiable, partly justifiable, or at least partly explainable homicides by women in filmdom and literature.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting, Sheila. I haven’t heard that statistic, but I can believe it. I imagine that’s especially true in cases where a woman “snaps” after being subject to a frequent, long-term provocation such as domestic violence.

      Liked by 1 person

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