‘Bitches be tricky’ and other thriller tropes

It’s time to talk about the dark and twisty ladies of literature I adore. Welcome to the first book review at mamaguilt.

I loved Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl! But I also hated it, in a totally respectful kind of way.

SPOILER ALERT – I won’t actually give away the ending, but this review discusses the shape and impact of the entire novel. If you haven’t read Gone Girl yet, then:

(a) omg where have you been, living on a deserted island or something?!, and

(b) look out, this review will give you strong hints of the book’s climax.

Gone Girl book cover

Flynn’s previous books, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, both explore lesser heard voices so exquisitely. In both, Flynn’s women and girl characters are crafted with hidden motives based on lived experiences that so many of share, yet so few of which are represented in popular fiction: body image, control, safety, violation.

And Flynn does it with a powerful female gaze. Her Domestic Noir novels are grounded in twisty ladies as protagonists and point of view characters, with narratives driven by domestic terror – an issue that is, of necessity, an overwhelmingly female concern.

The use of skin as text. The lifelong impact of pre-verbal horrors. The menace of intimacy. All of these are rich source material for Flynn’s work.

In Gone Girl, Flynn turns the female gaze to power and control in intimate relationships. Flynn slowly reveals that all the things making Nick Dunne a ‘great guy’ also make him a prime suspect in Amy Dunne’s disappearance .

Flynn puts the intellectual thrill in thriller in the establishing scenes, with her critical eye on popular media’s influence on justice, her menacing clarity about power and betrayal in domestic relationships, and her complex portrayal of the labyrinthine depths of the female psyche.

A complicated and gripping clue-puzzle plotline drive both Nick and the reader on a pacy chase through the entire middle of the book. What a great, sustaining literary device! It captures and holds narrative interest throughout a middle that, while rich with revelations of both Amy and Nick’s despicable secret selves, suffers from a lack of dramatic tension.

I was swept up in the way this narrative device accelerated my heartbeat, but ultimately it made for a let down, delivering a dissatisfying end game. The climax of Gone Girl plays as a parody, undercutting the intelligence of the first half of the book.

Popular fiction didn’t need another bunny boiler. Flynn has demonstrated a far more subtle and powerful hand in her other works, especially in Dark Places. (Oh Libby, how I adore you!). Gone Girl could have gone to much more interesting places, while still maintaining the thrilling twists, forbidding menace, and ultimate power reversal.

Super smart and with an impeccable education in dramatic structure based on many years as a television critic, Flynn is to be worshiped for her craft skills, and revered for her choice of subject matter. One day I would love the opportunity to meet and learn from her. She is a master. (How I wish there was a gynocentric term to replace ‘master’ – ‘mistress’ just doesn’t cut it).

Obviously, the dramatic shape of Gone Girl has been carefully crafted and the ending deliberately chosen for maximum effect – and, given the commercial success of the book and the movie, it was a choice well-made and well-played.

But, for me, while it stays true to the woman driving the narrative, the Gone Girl climax comes at the cost of the female gaze. The end scenes left me disoriented and disappointed as the author surreptitiously slides the ol’ man-goggles on, and I am tipped out of a deep-seated identification with Amy to gaze at her, aghast, from the outside.

That said, Flynn’s novels are exemplar in capturing the way, as girls and women, we misshape ourselves for success and fulfilment in response to being battered by conflicting threats and demands from every side. I am keenly interested in her next projects, both the adult thriller and the Young Adult novel.

But when it comes to crafting twisty ladies in literature, I far prefer it as done in Sharp Objects and Dark Places – with a full palette of character nuance, resisting the urge to swamp end scenes in psychobitch scarlet.

Research for Crime Fiction

You know when you have a little idea sitting in the back of your brain that just won’t go away? And it builds up so much detail and energy that it demands to be shared? And then, when you finally say it out loud (or by email), suddenly there’s this rapid dominoes effect and the idea is actually happening, a real thing, out in the world?!

I had one of those last year. I dreamed up a workshop for writers to explore ideas and information to create cracking crime stories. To my surprise and utter delight, the workshop was a hit.

This year, I had another idea to take the workshop in a new direction. I approached the Queensland Police Museum to see if they would host it. After all, what better place to learn about juicy resources for crime writers!

picture of a display from Queensland Police Museum
QPM: crime story ideas

I have just spoken to the curator of the Queensland Police Museum, the awesome Lisa Jones, to organise final details for next Saturday. Lisa has confirmed that for the ‘hands on’ part of my workshop, in addition to our tour of the museum, we will also have a BACKSTAGE PASS to all the good stuff behind the scenes at QPM.

From an overview of crime fiction subgenres and how they set your research agenda, through finding useful resources, to letting your muse loose in a room full of artefacts – there’s nothing like devoting a whole day to thinking, writing, touching, breathing ideas for your stories.

If you’d like to come along and join the fun, you can book online here, or call Queensland Writers Centre on 07 3842 9922.

  • Research for Crime Fiction workshop
  • Saturday 16 June 2012, 10:30am to 4:30pm
  • Info: Any crime fiction author will tell you the secret to compelling crime is in the details. Learn how to access primary and secondary research resources to find great ideas for your crime writing, and to flesh them into gripping stories. Meg Vann will show you how to best locate and engage crime experts for advice, and at what point in your project to consult them. You will explore creative writing techniques and structures to prompts and strengthen your use of research, and develop a research action plan for your own crime story premise.

‘Provocation’ and gratitude.

I have wanted to write since before I could read. And for six years now, I have been writing regularly. I’ve studied creative writing at uni and my local writers centre, joined a wonderful writing group, and convened another. I’ve written two long-form manuscripts, won some development grants, and had the opportunity to show my work to agents and publishers. I have enjoyed guidance and encouragement from so many generous and talented writers, as well as endless support from family and friends. But I have never been published.

Until now.

My story ‘Provocation’ was published last week in The Review of Australian Fiction. That is my name there in Volume 1, next to amazing authors like Kim Wilkins and Christos Tsiolkas and PM Newton. Pinch me!

‘Provocation’ is a psychological thriller. A young woman recovering from anorexia is covertly stalked by an inappropriately devoted security guard at her dream job. This middle-aged man has access to her every move, and an array of rationalisations to justify his increasing surveillance. Her uniquely disordered thinking becomes her best defence. But the stress triggers deepening psychosis, leading to an endgame where meaning and motive are as murky as the depths of a river in flood.

‘Provocation’ grew from a couple of ideas that kept haunting me. If you haven’t read ‘Provocation’ and think you might be interested, I would encourage you to head on over and do so before reading on here – there are no actual spoilers, but themes explored in this post may influence the way you experience the story…

Firstly, the story is dedicated in loving memory of a real-life young woman who was killed by covert violence. Her stalker had been court-ordered to keep his distance from her, her house, and her workplace. But she was dependent on medication for a chronic illness, and he put two and two together, loitering around her neighbourhood chemist. She spied him, ran home, and died there alone, literally gasping for relief.

Her death was not recorded as murder. As far as I can find out, no charges were laid,  and no action taken. (I’ve blogged about this incident, and the cathartic power of the crime narrative, in my Reading Girlhood post over at Sisters of the Pen).

The other major idea arose after the 2011 Brisbane floods. During the clean-up, I learned the library and gallery at South Bank are connected by subterranean loading docks that formed a massive underground whirlpool when the river broke its banks. The security cameras kept rolling as industrial bins were swept away like tin cans, ramming into those huge portable walls used in galleries. Fish, furniture, trash and rubble were carried from the basement of one building and deposited in far reaches of the next. I made several unauthorised tours of those docks, and there are some spooky places and machines down there, let me tell you!

Library in FloodQueensland State Library during 2011 floods
*image courtesy QPS

‘Provocation’ has no flood event, but is set in a building that was recently inundated. Those giant, interconnecting docks play an important role both as labyrinth and metaphor.

Inspired by these ideas, I formed a story premise, deciding to challenge and extend my craft – after two manuscripts in first person point of view, I wanted to write in third person with multiple viewpoint characters. I also wanted to experiment with tense, changing from past to present for the climax. And I needed a break from long-form fiction and humorous crime, so was drawn to the thriller novelette: ten thousand words to develop and deliver a lyrical story? Heaven!

As I tell my students, writing is a valid and worthwhile pursuit in and of itself. I don’t write with the expectation of being published. But it feels great to have developed a career as far as this significant milestone.

I love writing so much, in so many ways. I am profoundly grateful to all the people who have supported me to get this far, and just so thankful that I get to write.

Deadly Sex

Yesterday, Sisters in Crime (Brisbane Chapter) met to discuss a topic dear to our hearts and loins: sex in crime fiction.

I’m sure State Library patrons were wondering what the hell was going on behind the QWC acoustic curtain! As the Sisters shared sexcerpts from our works-in-progress, there were moments of graphic or inventive terminology (acroposthion, anyone?), as well as plenty of laughter, from shy giggles to howls of hilarity.

Some SinC writers prefer their fictional sex explicit, while others enjoy the tension more than the consummation. Some like it romantic, others deviant, or both! Most like it female-driven. We all agreed it was important that sex scenes worked as hard as any other scene to develop conflict (i.e. plot) and character – in most crime fiction,  a sex scene that existed purely to titillate would fall flat (apart from in some crime/erotica*).

We discussed the challenges in writing about sex:

  • finding fresh and non-objectifying ways to evoke sex scenes,
  • meeting readers’ generic expectations about the level of detail,
  • knowing when to resolve/consummate the build-up of URST** (especially tricky for writers of series titles – who else lost interest when Stephanie Plum finally got it on with Ranger?).

Of course, the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards got a mention: everyone agreed the 2010 winner was well-chosen for this line: ‘Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.’


We also reflected on how difficult it was for us to share our sexcerpts. The women around the table were all mature, confident and experienced. And SinC is a supportive environment of skilled and encouraging critique buddies. Yet most of us felt a level of embarrassment when reading our sex scenes.

The meeting was a wonderful and empowering forum for better Deadly Sex.  I’d be really interested to know what crime writers you think write sex scenes well – please let me know in a comment, so I can check them out!


* which I hereby dub “Crimrot”. Not because it’s rotten – I’m all for it! But people who know me know I just have a thing for inventing portmanteau words.

**Unresolved Sexual Tension

Crime Writers Go Tribal

One day, I will make it to Harrogate for the Annual Crime Writing Festival, “Europe’s largest gathering of crime writers” (according to The Guardian). Which is happening RIGHT NOW, by the way.

Yep, I’m sitting here in my Brisbane loungeroom while mere continents away, PD James is being honoured with a veteran award, the Crime Novel of the Year is being announced, and thousands of crime writers and readers are generally festivalling like mad.

It’s just not right! I should be there!

The freak nature/nurture confluence that moulded this dedicated crime fic tragic instilled in me, from a tender age, a deep compulsion to know everything there is to know about my home genre. And there’s only so much of that goal I can achieve from my wi-fied microsuede bullet-proof couch.

But look! It’s Sisters in Crime to the rescue!

Logo for SheKilda Again 2011

Australian and international crime writers will gather in Melbourne for SheKilda Again on 7-9 October. 

The Plot: To celebrate women’s crime writing on the page and screen and bring a collective critical eye to the field.

The Motive: To mark the 20th anniversary of Sisters in Crime Australia Inc by a 500-strong gathering that brings together women writers, true crime practitioners and those who enjoy women’s crime writing.

Oh happy, happy days. My tribe is gathering, and I am SO there.

The Lincoln Lawyer’s in town…

Squee! My awesomely smart and talented friend, Donna Hancox, is in conversation with Michael Connelly in a couple of weeks:

Author pic Michael Connelly
Michael Connelly

Brisbane Wednesday 25 May 6.30 pm

  • Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane Writers’ Festival and Brisbane’s Better Bookshops present: Michael Connelly in conversation with Donna Hancox
  • Venue: QUT Auditorium, Kelvin Grove
  • Cost: Free. Bookings: Not required
A journalist and crime writer, Michael Connelly is an articulate and hugely successful author. And Dr Donna is just the person to stimulate a fascinating discussion with him. Can’t wait!

Brisbane Sisters in Crime

Great news! The Brisbane chapter of Sisters in Crime is re-forming.

Women who love crime writing and live within cooee of Brisbane are welcome to come along to our first meeting.

Sisters in Crime Australia logo

Where: Avid Reader bookstore, 193 Boundary St, West End
Date: Saturday 7 May 2011
Time: 12.30pm
Cost: FREE! (Lunch available for purchase from Avid Reader café)

Come along to chat about what you are reading, what you are writing,
and what you would like from your local chapter of Sisters in Crime Australia.

Sisters in Crime Australia (SinCOz) was inspired by the American organisation of the same name, founded in 1986 by Sara Paretsky (creator of Chicago PI VI Warshawski). It exists to celebrate and promote women’s crime writing.

SinCOz has been running since 1991. It produces fantastic events and opportunities for crime writers, such as the Davitt Awards, the Scarlet Stiletto Awards, and the SheKilda Conventions. The Sisters in Crime Australia website explains what SinCOz is all about:

  • To bring together women crime writers, screen-writers, producers, booksellers, publishers, lawyers, judges, police, forensic specialists, librarians, academics, and critics but in the main, readers and viewers.
  • To discuss and analyse books, film and television shows, law and justice issues, new trends and critical issues of the crime genre.
  • To explore the contemporary issues at the heart of much crime fiction as well as dissecting its rich history.
  • To promote the professional development of women crime writers, especially emerging writers.
  • To provide opportunities for networking between writers, publishers and producers and between writers and their readers and viewers.
  • To have fun – and lots of it.

For more info, leave a question in the comments here, or like our page on Facebook.

Lecherer, moi?

It has been a whirlwind year of teaching for this crime fic tragic!

So far, I have devised and conducted a full day workshop on research for crime fiction, including  hands-on session with the heritage collection at the John Oxley Library. I have tutored a four-week course on creative writing at QWC, and am about to tutor a similar course for the AWM Online Learning Centre.. I am also tutoring in the Genre Fiction course at The University of Queensland.

And to top it off, last night I gave a lecture on research for crime fiction to hundreds of students at UQ!

I love working with students of creative writing – everyone has a fresh take to offer, and it is a privilege to walk alongside writers for awhile as they develop skills and confidence.

And of course, my first love is teaching crime fic research and development. I cover the historical development of the genre and its many sub- and sub-sub- and hybrid genres. I share heaps of visual, textual and personal research sources, like the Howdunit series for writers, and the websites for the Australian Federal Police, and the Queensland Police Museum. And I look at research in action, discussing character, context and conflict in excerpts from fantastic writers like Katherine Howell, Leigh Redhead, and Shamini Flint.

Book of Poisons for Writers book cover
Awesome Gruesomes!

A wise friend told me years ago that people usually find success by doing what they are passionate about – I didn’t believe her at the time, because allowing myself to pursue my dreams of crime writing seemed so impossibly unachievable.

So I encourage everyone to dedicate some time this weekend to doing what you love – you never know where it will lead!

Welcome to my new blog!

If you know me, you know I love reading and writing crime fiction, and being a mama. I’ve figured out a way to combine my interests: now I study maternal feminist crime fiction!

I can’t stop until the case is closed [to paraphrase Sara Paretsky]…

If you like crime fiction too, or if you’re a parent struggling to find the elusive work/life balance, join me here at mamaguilt to share and explore our experiences.