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. 🙂

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?

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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 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.