Fred Vargas

Female villainy in twenty-first-century French crime fiction

Our very own Ciara Gorman gave a paper on Female Villainy at The Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR)  and kindly shared the video with us; please watch it here:

Video linkhttps://www.sas.ac.uk/videos-and-podcasts/culture-language-and-literature/representations-female-villainy-21st-century

IMLR Video Recording Transcript

Hi! My name is Ciara Gorman and I’m a first-year PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, in the department of French. My research is focused on the representations of female villainy in twenty-first-century French crime fiction.

I’ve been fascinated by crime fiction my whole life; I grew up reading Agatha Christie, watching detective serials on TV, playing Cluedo… This might be relatable, because crime fiction – in all its multi-media forms, from film to TV to podcasts – is attractive to many people. In France, crime fiction is an institution; in 2014, one in every five novels sold there was a polar,[1] and sales of crime novels account for around 17% of all novels sold per annum in France.[2] The ‘crime novel’, like the genre itself, is wonderfully diverse, and all of its subgenres are popular in France – from the classic roman policier or detective novel, to historical mysteries, to noir thrillers. General literature has also been infiltrated by crime tropes, as they make appearances in books not technically or typically classified as ‘crime fiction’. Several of these crime subgenres are represented in the corpus of my thesis. I’m working with four books, the covers of which you can see on this slide, all published in the last ten years or so. Fred Vargas is one of the most prolific and popular crime fiction authors in France, same with Karine Giebel; Pierre Lemaitre, who wrote Alex in 2011, is a Prix-Goncourt laureate and so is Leïla Slimani, who won that same prestigious prize in 2016 for this novel, Chanson douce. All of these novels tell different stories, all of them have different generic forms, but they’re all united by one character: a female perpetrator. That character, too, exists on a scale in these novels: in one, she’s a serial killer, in another a murderer of children; she’s a young woman, an old woman, a nanny, a professional assassin. I’m interested in three specific aspects of the representation of these female criminals: why and where they commit crime, and what imagery is associated with them.

My thesis currently has a four-part structure, as you can see here. Chapter One evaluates the role of villains, and of villainy itself, in crime fiction. Villains are really an integral component of any narrative: they throw the heroine’s ‘goodness’ into relief by their ‘badness’, and their evil deeds are often the motor that propels the story forwards. Their actions cause us to reel back in horror, and yet we are compelled to keep looking. This is right at the heart of what makes crime fiction itself so popular; Louis Vax describes it as a simultaneous process of attraction and repulsion.[3] If you’ve ever watched a crime drama where a murder is shown, you’ll know what I mean: you want to look away, because it’s uncomfortable, but you can’t, because it’s part of the story, and you want to know the story ends. This sort of morbid fascination with villains in crime fiction can be increased when the perpetrator is a woman because it’s not what we might be used to seeing – we need only look at the popularity of shows like Killing Eve, or Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl as evidence. We know that fictional characters often reflect or interrogate societal realities, and teach us lessons about how to be in the world – that’s why we talk about characters as ‘role models’ or ‘examples of what not to do’. So what do female villains, specifically, have to say about issues like gender, justice, policing, capitalism, desire, hatred, love? What messages do we, the reading public, glean from their behaviour as we unconsciously evaluate it for tips, tricks, limitations, warnings – as we do with all characters in fiction? These are the questions at the heart of my thesis – questions about representation, feminism, fiction and reality.

In Chapter Two, I want to look at the motives assigned to our female perpetrators; put simply, why do they commit their crimes? The answer is double: vengeance and breakdown. In Alex and Quand sort la recluse, our female villains murder six and ten people respectively, as an act of vengeance for unspeakable abuse, vengeance that was long in the planning and exquisite in the execution (if you’ll pardon the pun). In Chanson douce, Louise, our perpetrator, murders the children she cares for as a result of a breakdown in her mental health, which has been slowly collapsing over the course of the novel. Louise’s motives for murder have as much to say about capitalism, motherhood and the exploitation of care workers as they do about crime. None of our female villains have ‘simple’ reasons for murder; this is part of what makes their characters so complex.

In Chapter Three, I shift my focus to the places associated with female villains in the novels: where do they commit crime? What spaces do they move through, and what can we learn from this? There are three important places to consider in my corpus: the carceral space, the domestic space, and the city. In the hardboiled crime novel, the city – in its anonymity, its violence, its corruption – is as central a character to the story as the private eye. In Alex, the anonymity of the city harms her when she is kidnapped right off the street and it’s almost impossible for the police to track her down, amongst all the people who go missing in cities every day. Later, that same anonymity hides her, when she’s trying to escape detection by those very police. This is particularly striking when we consider that Alex is a woman, and the city is so often coded as dangerous to women – but here, Alex is the danger. She’s as anonymous and unpredictable as the city, and that’s a significant element in how we understand her as a villain.

Finally, there’s Chapter Four, which will examine the particular imagery associated with each of our female perpetrators. A great example here is Irène, the villain in Quand sort la recluse. She is closely linked to the image of the recluse spider, not only because her weapon of choice is spider venom, but because she remains mostly out of sight in the novel, lurking in the background in her web of deceit. What can we learn from this association between spiders and women – a long-standing one, with its roots in Greek mythology – resurging in contemporary crime fiction? How does the animalisation of Irène contribute to her character as a woman seeking justice outside of the law?  This leads me to the larger questions which inform my research work. We might use this particular notion of the vengeful woman as an example – because Alex and Irène are taking long-planned revenge against a group of people who participated in their rape, assault and prostitution as young children. Does that knowledge change how we think about their crimes, about their likely punishment? I think it does, and this is significant considering that how we deal with allegations of historical sexual abuse is a topic very much in the limelight. Engagement with this issue in contemporary crime fiction is channelled through the figure of the female villain who is also a survivor of abuse. This is what Di Ciolla and Pasolini (2018) describe as the ‘two-way traffic’ between crime fiction and real life; as the fiction draws its inspiration from real life crime, criminals and general society, so we learn to think differently about that real life through engagement with the fiction. And so these contemporary female villains seem to push us beyond the film noir stereotype of the beautiful, deadly, shallow femme fatale; they push us into the territory of philosophising on what justice looks like, what a society that continually disbelieves and denigrates women who speak up about sexual violence has to reckon with when those same women decide to seek their own kind of recompense, outside of the system that pays only lip-service to the ideals of equality and the zealous pursuit of justice that it claims to uphold. It’s my firm belief that these characters move the dial in discourses of justice and accountability in crime fiction, and that we need to pay attention to where the needle is now pointing


[1]Julie Guesdon, ‘Dans l’édition, le polar tient bon’, France Inter, 20th October 2017  <https://www.franceinter.fr/culture/dans-l-edition-le-polar-tient-bon> [accessed 11th June 2020].

[2]Équipe BePolar, ‘Les chiffres et le palmarès des ventes du genre polar dévoilés par l’Observatoire de la librairie’, BePolar, <https://www.bepolar.fr/Les-chiffres-et-le-palmares-des-ventes-du-genre-Polar-devoiles-par-l-Observatoire-de-la-librairie>, [accessed 11th June 2020].

[3] Louis Vax, ‘Le sentiment du mystère dans le conte fantastique et le roman policier’, Les Études philosophiques, Nouvelle Série, 6(1), 1951, p 65. Please note that in the video recording, I mistakenly attribute this citation to Marc Lits, another scholar of crime fiction studies.