J.D. Robb’s “In Death” series are some of the most popular mystery novels and regularly make the New York Times Bestsellers List. Their popularity is partly because Robb [a pseudonym for Nora Roberts] is a brilliant writer and partly of the because of the romance. What differentiates them from “normal” romance/ detective series like Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series is the way Robb treats the issue of Violence against Women.
Robb doesn’t treat Violence against women and children as voyeuristic plot device. Instead, she writes about VAW as systemic and endemic; it is constant, continuous with consequences rippling through families and communities. Women and children are victims of homicide, rape and torture because of the institutional misogyny which treats women as subhuman. They are victims because they have “no” value in a society which values masculinity above all else. The main character is Lieutenant Eve Dallas: a woman who became a police officer as a way to heal after systematic physical, emotional and sexual abuse by her father which culminated in her killing him at the age of 8. It’s not uncommon to have female leads in detective novels who are “unusual” but one who is a victim as well as a survivor and a strong, intelligent, compassionate woman fighting for justice for other women is different. She is heroine not because she is violent but because she is real; a real woman struggling to rebuild her life and learning to love and care for other women in a way that the patriarchy loathes.
The only other fictional books that I have come across which have treated VAW as systemic and endemic are the Shakespeare books by Charlaine Harris. The main character in those is Lily Bard and she is the victim of a serious gang-rape. Her healing involves strengthening her body through martial arts but she also heals by helping other women. Harris’ most famous creation are the True Blood books and they are very definitely feminist. They are also a searing critique of the misogyny, racism, homophobia and disabilism rife in society and the hypocrisy of those who use “manners” and “tradition” to cover up their destructive and violent behaviour.
Obviously, Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, amongst many others, also write about VAW as it actually exists within the patriarchy. The difference with Robb and Harris’s books are that they are mass market fiction and they reach an audience that feminist literature simply never attracts. Robb and Harris are also incredibly sympathetic and supportive of the women in their books. They both write very triggering stories but they are necessary stories. We need more women writers discussing VAW as systematic, systemic and continuous. We need more women writers not using serial killers as plot devices because they are “abnormal”. We need more women writers using strong, intelligent female characters. Male violence against women is not abnormal. It is daily. It is everywhere and it is committed by normal men. I have no idea if Robb intended this to be the effect of her books but they have brought the issue of VAW into the public sphere in a non-confrontational manner that has, hopefully, made more women cognisant of its destructive consequences.