Can men really write about women?

I’ve just read five books in a row written by male authors. I’ll freely admit that this doesn’t qualify as a statistically significant sample. And yet I feel compelled to wade right in and share with you my thoughts on the abilities of men to really really understand their female characters. We’re not talking Nicholas Sparks here, so Buckle Up. It could be a bumpy ride.

The Dreams of Bethany MellmothIn my fantasy “authors I have a bit of a crush on” life, for some reason I have William Boyd pegged as a Big Game Hunter type of a man – leaning nonchalantly against a muddy Landrover, smoking a Camel. As a result I’m always taken by surprise to rediscover that he writes really well about women. In The Dreams of Bethany Melmoth  the portrayal of Bethany herself is very finely wrought. However, not to move the goalposts, I think that Boyd is trying to appeal to a female readership here, I just can’t picture male readers taking to this book at all.

Colin Cotterill gets round the problem of writing about women by simply excluding them, if not altogether, in the main. In The Rat Catcher’s Olympics there are really only two female characters and they are like male characters only with female names and husbands. This doesn’t deter me from Cotterill as an author, as his male characters have quite well-developed feminine sides anyway. Colin (I feel we are on first name terms) is the only author I have ever tried to meet: in Chiang Mai at The Blue Diamond Cafe which I had heard he frequented. The Rat Catchers Olympics is a hard novel to recommend to others. Dr Siri is an acquired taste and you need to have a high tolerance level for all things Laotian and in this book, Russian.

The Flight AttendantChris Bohjalian in The Flight Attendant, takes the cliché of a promiscuous air hostess and weaves an unsettling murder mystery out of it. Like a lot of male authors he’s really better at vampish/bad girl females – chances are you’ll not easily recognise yourself in Cassie.

Deon Meyer in the brilliantly dystopian Fever gets round the whole issue by paring the female presence in his books right down to the bare minimum – the very beautiful and the very sporty. Post an apocalyptic disaster, guess what?  It will still be a man’s world!

Cover of Adventures in modern marriage

Only William Nicholson in Adventures in Modern Marriage comes even close to trying to get under the skin of females you might meet in your everyday life. One woman at a time he does this really well, but he too has a problem with interactions between women – which , let’s give credit here, he does at least attempt to portray.

This seems to me to be a major problem area for many male authors. They struggle to write about women in groups, they have no ear for dialogue between women.

There, I have said it. What do you think?


In praise of the cuddly detective

Cover of The Lewis manHow do you like your detectives?  These days you have a choice – and it boils down to full cream and frothy or black and bitter.

That is: fat or thin.

For some time now the lure of the thin, fraught, whisky drinking, cigarette smoking, dark and brooding detective has held sway. Their love lives are a shambles, they have few friends, long memories for cold cases and, coincidentally, they almost always work in bleak, sleety climates and in landscapes that feature a lot of rocks. Like Inspector Lewis in Peter May‘s Lewis Trilogy, or Michael Connelly‘s Harry Bosch (tough, complex and unflinching) and Karin Slaughter‘s Will Trent who has: more issues than you can shake a stick at.

Cover of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective AgencyAnd then along came Alexander McCall Smith‘s Precious Ramotswe and her The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Set in hot, dry Botswana, Mma Ramotswe (fuelled by tea and biscuits), runs a cheerful establishment in pursuit of Botswana’s criminals. With a happy home life and a healthy appetite, she was the forerunner (in 1998) of a  whole slew of fat, happy detectives.

Like Dr Siri, the plump State Coroner in Laos, who solves exceedingly grisly murders with the help of a motley crew, a wife, a best friend and a good supply of favourite foods. Colin Cotterill has won numerous crime writing awards; his most recent offering is The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die.

Still in the Tropics: Tarquin Hall‘s Vish Puri solves multiple cases in between Cover of The Case of the Deadly Butter Chickenepisodes of gluttony. The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken would have you believe that is all there is to his writing, but like any good Indian meal, there are a number of accompanying side dishes and perplexing red herrings.

Finally there is Inspector Singh, a fat Sikh who works in South East Asia. The parallels are all there: the heat, the food, the marriage. But Inspector Singh is quite a prickly gent who  hasn’t endeared himself to his superiors. So he is allocated all the cases in far-flung outposts in Cambodia, Bali and Malaysia. And of course, he hates to fly.

I hope you never have to choose a Detective Inspector in real life. But, when you are cosied up in front of the fire on a cold winter’s night with a good murder mystery, will your detective be cuddly or sinewy?

Take your pick.


Siri Paiboun and the case of the dire author photo

I’m in the midst of an obsession.. with a fictional 73 year old Laotian, the star of Colin Cotterill’s mystery series set in post-1975 revolution Laos. Dr Siri Paiboun is the national coroner, kind but cynical, dedicated but often disillusioned. With no budget or lab equipment and no previous experience either in forensics or detecting, Siri and his loyal assistants Nurse Dtui (Fatty) and Mr Geung have prevailed in a number of tricky cases featuring murderous evil spirits, corrupt Communist officials and a virgin-slaying serial killer.

These titles have been marketed in America as being in a similar vein to Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana based Mma Ramotswe novels. Like Smith, Cotterill’s tone is humorous and his characters warm and engaging; Siri however is clearer eyed than Precious Ramotswe. He recognises the deficiencies in the new Laos and being a natural-born rebel and risk-taker he delights in subverting the system. These titles are also less static; Siri and his cronies spend lots of time bouncing about in rustbucket trucks and death-trap motorbikes on the sub-standard roads of Laos tracking down dirty, rotten criminal-types.

Now on title six in this series, The merry misogynist, Cotterill’s book jacket author photos have also been an evolving delight. The Coroner’s lunch featured Cotterill in what look like Thai silk pjs and a highly dubious moustache. The tashe remained in varied forms through the next few titles but his latest photo shows him clean shaven and clad in non-silky garments…whew. Rubbish author photos aside, these novels are a delight. Fast and funny, and with a novel locale they are well worth a read.