Love it. Hate it. Read it.

maestra

“Love it. Hate it. Read it.” That’s what the red violator on L.S. Hilton’s 2018 Ultima said, Ultima being the third book in her “Maestra” trilogy (AKA the Judith Rashleigh trilogy): Maestra, 2016, Domina, 2017 and Ultima, 2018. Well, I did read it, and I did indeed love it, though even cursory blog and review surfing confirms there are those who hated it, NYT bestseller status, seven figure advance and six/seven figure upfront film option notwithstanding. Clearly some readers and reviewers fixated on the books’ sexual content, uninterested in witnessing a fully fleshed out femme fatale’s emergence, or uncomfortable with a radical heroine’s ultimate success.

Maestra’s austere black cover originally beckoned to me from my library’s new releases shelf. Much has been made of the provocative vertical red slit, though the trilogy’s other covers suggest the none-too-subtly-symbolic slit could be no more than a torn painting or a stiletto’s cut (a blade, not a shoe), precisely the kind of wound the trilogy’s utterly ruthless anti-heroic protagonist might inflict. I devoured that book, unaware at the time that it was planned as a trilogy, though sure that a sequel at least was forthcoming. But if ads ran or new books were shelved face-out at the bookstores, I never saw them, and L.S. Hilton’s memorable Judith Rashleigh eventually fell off my radar. I recently spotted a like-new copy of Maestra at a local used bookseller. Reacquainting myself with one of the neo-noir thriller niche’s most intriguing femmes fatales, I got the balance of the series immediately.

Suspense? Thriller? Frankly, some sixty-plus pages into Hilton’s first volume, Maestra, I was getting nervous with what felt uncomfortably close to a twenty-teens take on good old-fashioned chick-lit, all of that category’s tropes visibly in play: The uber-smart heroine suffering indignities in a hip, urban workplace where she’s surrounded by a cadre of catty coworkers and enduring a downright evil boss, the tale told with endless name-dropping on steroids, and not just the usual laundry list of designer apparel, shoes, fragrances, wines, shops and clubs. Maestra opens in a snooty London art auction house, so the name-dropping extends to artists as well. But I needn’t have worried. Once L.S. Hilton cut loose, the rest of Maestra and the next two novels were deliciously dark, provocative and true ‘page-turners’.

And yet, they were also much more than that.

Judith Rashleigh (Rashleigh…rashly?) is determined to leave her less-than-humble lower-class Liverpool roots behind. An overworked but underpaid London art auction house assistant, she knows more than her artsy-smartsy coworkers and the unfairly wealthy art patrons who buy and sell masterpieces like they were mere commodities. Yet this wise-beyond-her-years art historian reluctantly moonlights as a glorified B-girl in a men’s’ club just to get by. After barely escaping a gallery patron’s sexual assault (arranged by her own boss, no less) only to be sacked when she dares to question the authenticity of a pricey work of art, Judith commiserates with her one and only reliable friend. Not a coworker, drinking buddy or flat-mate.

Rage.

Bit by bit, Judith Rashleigh (under various aliases) reinvents herself, and her journey from a Liverpool ragamuffin on the dole to owner of an art gallery in Venice pits her against dot-com billionaires and Central European arms dealers, gold-digging mistresses and the Sicilian Mafia, rogue cops and Russian oligarchs, while flitting from the Riviera to Berlin and all points in between, finally returning to London where everything began, and where she’ll extract her final revenge, deploying an uncannily crafty and uniquely female arsenal of weapons.

 

L.S. Hilton is the pen name for respected historian and biographer Lisa Hilton, who already had several well-regarded British history books and three historical novels to her credit when she began Maestra. They often say “write what you know”, and it seems that Hilton did just that. Hailing from the north of England herself, studying art in France and Italy and even interning at Christie’s have all lent an air of authenticity to the series. The art history rings true (at least it did for this former fine arts major), each book linked to a particular artist, such as the groundbreaking 16thcentury woman painter Artemisia Gentileschi in Maestra, Baroque era bad-boy Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio in Domina,and strangely, post-impressionist Paul Gauguin in Ultima. If all the highbrow culture and haute couture name-dropping sounds off-putting for traditional mystery/crime fiction fans, please reconsider. Maestra, Domina and Ultima are three kickass rollercoaster thrill rides of heists, murder and mayhem. It’s just that most of the criminal hijinks go down in luxury hotels, billionaires’ estates and opulent salons instead of dark-n-dirty New York back-alleys.

Much to my disappointment, some author interviews and reviews have been a bit juvenile, all flustered and fixated on the sexual content in L.S. Hilton’s Maestra trilogy. I’ve cringed more than once while reading articles comparing Maestra, Domina and Ultima to (shudder) E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey books, as if those mommy-porn books are the only current reference point for any woman writer whose work incorporates some adventurous sex. But L.S. Hilton’s Judith Rashleigh has more in common with Selina Kyle/Catwoman or Bridget Gregory from John Dahl’s 1994 The Last Seduction than she does with James’ Anastasia Steele.

Check out L. S. Hilton’s Maestra trilogy for an artfully word-smithed and complexly plotted thrill-ride of high-stakes extortion, theft, murder and revenge. But most of all, look for these three novels in order to finally experience a fully fleshed-out femme fatale’s own story. Hilton’s Judith Rashleigh isn’t a walk-on, sidekick, love interest, bed-mate or adversary in yet one more male cop’s, detective’s, spy’s, thief’s or adventurer’s story. She isthe story.  I’ll have more to say about that in an upcoming post, but till then, look for L.S. Hilton’s Judith Rashleigh trilogy: Maestra, Domina and Ultima. Love It. Hate It. But do read it.

L S HIlton 1989

Author L.S. Hilton

Where Do The Dead Girls Live?

lily james by cuneyt akeroglu

There is no dry erase board hanging on my writing lair’s wall, and no tally maintained for my in-progress projects’ body counts. But if there was, the completed manuscript for The Stiletto Gumshoe currently making the rounds in the querying process would show eight: Five men and three women. None could be labeled innocent victims, though two of the women might be considered ‘collateral damage’ of the novel’s primary crimes, while the last of the three ought to ignite some cheers when she finally goes down.

No, I didn’t track my body count, much less categorized by gender, and the ‘dead girl’ trope wasn’t even on my radar when work on that novel began. But by the time it was deep in revisions and I’d also started its sequel (for a hoped-for hard-boiled crime fiction series, that one still in-progress), there was no ignoring an expanding dialog about the dismissive and disturbing reliance on murdered women — often anonymous victims — deployed in the mystery/crime fiction genre and pop culture/entertainment in general as convenient plot devices, all too often for voyeuristic thrills and with fetishistic relish, and customarily used as prompts for male protagonists’ stories.

So, updating that imaginary dry erase board for The Stiletto Gumshoe’s in-progress sequel might still show a relatively benign body count, the story including the demise of two women at this point (once again, far from innocent bystanders) and several bad guys getting their just desserts, their final tally still undetermined. (It is a work-in-progress, after all, so we’ll let creativity and writerly caprice lead where it will, already-discarded outlines aside.) Still, I know all too well that one of the women who dies near the beginning of this novel does so in a grisly manner (though ‘off-camera’, so to speak), doesn’t even merit a line of dialog before her demise, and may fit the profile of the dreaded ‘dead girl’ trope closer than I’d like. Nothing intentional, just how the story worked out.

dead girl book

I’d already finished Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls: Essays On Surviving An American Obsession (2018) at the time the sequel was underway, and could hardly plead ignorance about the issue. To be fair, the title of Bolin’s book, which earned its share of accolades (NYT Notable Book of 2018, NYT Editor’s Choice, Edgar Nominee, etc.) is a bit misleading, being more personal memoir, and only the first fourth (if that) actually dealt with the ‘dead girl’ trope. Still…the topic was already out there for discussion elsewhere.

For example, last week’s first Literary Hub e-newsletter included a CrimeReads link to “Inverting – And Avoiding – The ‘Dead Girl’ Trope”, its subhead: “Writers Carolyn Murnick And Alex Segura Discuss The Dangers And Pitfalls Of The Crime Genre’s Most Problematic Trend” (Link Below). Please give it a look. Here are writers themselves grappling with the issue, just as we’ve seen others do recently in roundtables, essays and posts. The question: Why does so much crime genre material rely on male investigators (private eyes, cops, the FBI, whomever) solving the murders of more or less anonymous women? Further, why does so much crime genre material (novels, stories, film, TV series, comics, art) use the stalking, assault, abduction, rape, torture and murder of women for entertainment? Why do writers choose to write this, and why do readers seem to gobble it up?

Dead Girl Trope

Don’t look for answers here. It’ll take a more widely read authority than me (not being an authority on anything, really) to plumb the psyches of writers or readers, and a much smarter observer to analyze the drives, impulses and interests of modern American society. That the ‘dead girl’ trope is very much alive and well (so to speak) and even thriving in entertainment is apparent. But as this piece’s title asks, precisely where do the ‘dead girls’ live? Where is the ‘dead girl’ trope most prevalent, and is it really in the crime genre?

Genre may be no more than a convenient publishing industry term, something writers use to steer submissions to the proper agent, those agents use to pitch editors, publishers use to organize lists, booksellers (and librarians) use for merchandising and readers use to navigate bookstore aisles. After all, charming sweet shoppe and kitty-cat cozies are shelved in the same mystery genre section as hard-boiled P.I. series and grisly shoot ‘em ups. But they have as much in common as dystopian sci-fi and a Regency romance.

I’m not convinced that the ‘dead girl’ trope is deployed by mystery/crime fiction writers as ruthlessly and dismissively as we might naturally assume. I’d suggest that where ‘the dead girls live’ — that is, where the ‘dead girl’ trope is most prevalent – is actually in aligned categories like ‘Thrillers’, ‘Suspense’, ‘Psychological Suspense’ and many other similar labels that dustjacket copywriters concoct.  I just finished one myself this week, albeit a comparatively tame novel. Still, it was just one of the the many, many, many novels where the dead girls reside in the company of an army of stalkers and serial killers. These novels often adhere to very successful formulas which seem to pit writers in competition with one another to dream up ever increasing levels of sadistic torture and cruelly sex-ified deaths. If the cover art doesn’t give it away, the opening pages will, inevitably featuring a woman abducted, restrained, enduring some unimaginable horror and then finally being murdered (or about to be). There are oodles of these books, many by incredibly successful and popular writers, and while some are shelved in the ‘Mystery’ section, just as often (if not more so) they’re in ‘Fiction & Literature’. In fact, I’ve read my share of author interviews in which the writers distance themselves from the mystery/crime fiction ‘genre’ altogether, presumably leery of the perceived ghettoization a genre label can lead to.

Admittedly, my own reading tastes lean towards mid-twentieth century crime fiction from the 1930’s – 1950’s pulp shorts to the postwar paperback originals and series, along with contemporary material that revives, honors and reimagines their tropes, whether noir pastiche or hard-boiled homage. Not surprisingly, my own work attempts to do the same. Oh, all that material’s brimming with violence and bloodshed, full of brawls and gunplay, yet seems to feature as many (if not more) mobsters, thieves, muggers, blackmailers, drug dealers, embezzlers, pimps, femmes fatales and rogue cops duking it out with private eyes, detectives, reporters, attorneys and sundry investigators as it does ‘dead girls’ used only as triggers for hard-boiled dicks’ heroic quests, with victims reduced to mere props. In the mystery/crime fiction genre, women definitely die. And men die. Lots of them. Good ones and bad ones and various in-betweeners. But as for inhumanly crafty serial killers and the endless horror-show of women in bondage and sexualized torture that populate the pages of so many ‘thrillers’? Maybe not as much as you might suppose, or so it seems to me, and at least in my own reading.

isebelle huppert guy bourdin 1988 copy

My point is only this: The ‘dead girl’ trope is indeed very real, much more than a trend, and it’s something each and every mystery/crime fiction writer needs to confront when outlining, plotting and eventually pounding the keys. Further, it’s something readers might want to consider when choosing their next books. We’re bound to encounter no shortage of squirm-worthy sexism, racism and politics in a lot of classic mystery/crime fiction, even in works by cherished legends. Each of us can compartmentalize that in the way we choose. Or not. But before we paint the entire mystery/crime fiction genre with too broad a brush of complicity – intended or not — let’s think about where the ‘dead girl’ trope prevails. Is it in the ‘crime genre’? Well, yes…some, to be sure. But perhaps, it thrives much more visibly among the innumerable ‘thrillers’ on the drug store, supermarket and mass-merchandiser bestseller racks and in the bookstores’ Fiction & Literature sections. My observation tells me that it’s where the ‘dead girls’ really live.

Top photo: Lily James by Cuneyt Akeroglu; above: Isabelle Huppert by Guy Bourdin, 1988

https://crimereads.com/inverting-and-avoiding-the-dead-girl-trope/

 

All The Wrong Places

All The Wrong Places - Joy Fielding

If Joy Fielding’s All The Wrong Places reads like a Lifetime Channel movie turned into a novel, it does so in a good way. Clearly there’s a sizeable audience for this formula, as Fielding’s nearly 50-year career with just-shy of 30 novels indicates.

After spending days in the impressive but depressing milieu of James Ellroy’s epic This Storm where everyone’s evil or at least mildly crooked, I needed a break from mid-twentieth century gangsters, cops, junkies, pimps and blackmailers (to say nothing of fascists and fifth columnists). So a non-crime fiction novel came home with me (still reading that one) along with Joy Fielding’s All The Wrong Places, its color-saturated cover literally reaching out to me from the shelf, flanked as it was by two comparatively dowdy looking trade paperbacks. (So think about that when fretting over your books’ cover art!)

To be clear: I don’t read a lot of so-called ‘suspense’, ‘thrillers’, ‘psychological suspense’, ‘suspense thrillers’ and whatever other monikers publishers’ marketing departments dream up. Yet, there are a lot to choose from. Given a choice between sadistic serial killers/tortured victims vs. something retro and noir-ish, I’ll always go with the latter. But I’m not completely out of touch with this category, even if some thriller writers adamantly disassociate themselves from the mystery/crime fiction genre, presumably leery of genre labels.

All The Wrong Places updates the familiar ‘lonely hearts killer’ for the 21st century with charming ‘Mister Right Now’ prowling dating apps for his prey. Now I’m not sure what alternate universe you need to visit to locate women who are foolish enough to go to a blind date’s home after only one get-acquainted drink, but in All The Wrong Places they succumb to good looks, a beguiling smile and the promise of a handsome bachelor’s home cooked dinner. No surprise that once the meal’s laid out and the wine is poured, they suddenly find their hands cuffed behind their backs, a noose around their necks, and a long night of unspeakable torture and death in store.

Scenes of this icky torture (mostly kept ‘off screen’ in a kind of PG-13 level of ick) are interspersed among the novel’s main narrative trail, in which thirty-something Paige gives in to her hip widowed mother’s prodding to surf the dating apps herself. Paige is bunking down with Mom after leaving her unfaithful live-in boyfriend and losing her ad exec job. Meanwhile, Paige’s bestie Chloe endures a philandering husband’s hellish abuse, while they all suffer through trickery and worse at the hands of Paige’s scheming near-twin cousin, Heather, the novel’s resident bad girl…and in some ways, its real villain. Frankly, the story could almost stand on its own without the sadistic serial killer at all, even if it wouldn’t have ever found its way onto my to-be-read end table. Some readers will complain that Fielding chickened out at the novel’s climax. There’s no amateur sleuthing, Paige doesn’t vanquish the killer (or even encounter him at all outside of texts) , and even the bad girl’s fate is only implied, not depicted. But I think it was a surprisingly brave choice on the author’s part, particularly in a category that relies on formula.

So I’ve read my serial killer thriller for 2019, though I can’t swear that another won’t sneak home with me from a bookstore visit. Formula can be a good thing, particularly in the hands a talented pro like Joy Fielding, and all the more intriguing when a skilled writer chooses to bend the rules even a little.

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